All writers belong to the class of non-orators,” Thomas Mann warned his audience at the outset, accepting the Nobel prize for literature in 1929 in a self-described state of “festive intoxication”. In a paradox the 2017 laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro must be keenly aware of as he undergoes this week’s induction process, the Nobel honours authors for their books but asks them to appear in person (though some, such as Bob Dylan last year, refuse) and morph into celebrity performers expert in the very different art of rhetoric.
The contrast was starkly exemplified 20 years after Mann by William Faulkner, whose brief speech (calling for writers to return to the anguish of “the old verities … of the heart”) was little understood even by anglophone listeners when delivered – he had a heavy southern accent and zero microphone technique – but once it appeared as a text was hailed as an inspirational classic.
It’s a formidable challenge, and one winners have to undergo twice (usually, as with Ishiguro, delivering a lecture and a “banquet speech” three days later). But most attempts include at least three of the following elements: profuse thanks to the Swedish Academy; equally lavish expressions of humility and unworthiness (but don’t overdo this passive-aggressively, like Luigi Pirandello); confessing a personal debt to Scandinavian literature (WB Yeats’s entire speech, for example, consisted of tributes to Swedenborg and Ibsen); a potent childhood memory and a recent anecdote showing how grounded in mundane reality you are. (William Golding talked of being given a parking ticket and congratulations by the same policeman on the day of the prize announcement).
Evocations of the heroic torment of a writer’s life, exemplified by Faulkner and Hemingway’s speeches, are out of fashion, as is lofty prophesying about the future of humanity and literature’s role in shaping it that mid-20th century laureates (such as Albert Camus) went in for. But taking up the cudgels on behalf of your own stigmatised ethnic group, or nation, or region (Gabriel García Márquez urged his audience not to view Latin America through a European lens) is still fine, though the fact that so many non-white and/or developing world winners chose that option in the 1980s and 90s might explain why there have been fewer such laureates of late.