I know this is somewhat strange, but Nobel Literature Prize acceptance speeches are without a doubt one of my most preferred sources of leisure reading. I like hearing what the world’s most influential and innovative literary figures have to say when they have the whole planet’s attention. Unsurprisingly, I hold special fondness for a Nobel speech if I happen to already admire the work of the writer being recognized; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1970 acceptance speech remains one of my favorite works of writing to re-read, but my appreciation for his expertly minimalist novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich definitely plays into my affection for his Nobel oration. This all being said, my second favorite Nobel Prize acceptance speech was penned by an author whose fiction I cannot claim to have overly enjoyed reading: William Faulkner.
Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1949, having by that point already published landmark books such as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom!. His award speech, given in Stockholm in December of 1950, immediately distances itself from his fiction in that it is a mere five paragraphs of precise, poignant discourse. My primary frustration with Faulkner’s novels, admittedly a total fault on my part and in no way detracting from his genius, remains his insistence on keeping the reader uncomfortable all the time. His work often features extraordinarily long passages, abrupt and un-signaled changes in narrative perspective, and grotesque characters with loads of psychological baggage, all of which are completely valid and interesting literary devices, but when combined make a reading experience I find more inscrutable than rewarding. I hope, much in the way that parents want their children to grow up and appreciate eating vegetables, that I will someday turn an intellectual corner with Faulkner and be able to sing the praises of his novels with the genuine respect they assuredly deserve. Until that day comes, Flannery O’Connor will retain her hold on my Southern gothic affections.
The Nobel speech Faulkner delivered, however, seems intended to accomplish the opposite of his fiction. Convoluted and disconcerting plots are exchanged for concision and clarity of expression. He begins by saying, “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust.” This opening impresses me every time I read it with its simultaneously sincere humility and pride. He acknowledges both the grandness of the award in its recognition of his “life’s work,” while also admitting that the “award is only [his] in trust,” in the sense that he is neither the first nor the last writer to have such an influence on the world, and nor should he be. He knows that the future of literature, and correspondingly the future of society and culture, depend upon those to come: “the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.” Acceptance speeches understandably can tend towards a backwards-looking talk, one commenting upon what it took for the recipient to make it this far, and how their work has already changed lives for the better. Notably, Faulkner resists this temptation, instead directing the audience, and the world, to look ahead.
Practically every sentence in Faulkner’s speech could be elaborated on at length, given the impressive depth of insight he achieves in such few words, but the concluding two sentences demand consideration over the rest. He writes, “It is [the poet’s] privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” If there exists a better two-sentence summation of how literature and the human experience are uniquely bound together in a mutually enriching relationship, I have yet to read it. Writers, as Faulkner eloquently points out, have the “privilege” of speaking to the world and its myriad of beauties, complexities, struggles, and passions. Where many see labor or profit, Faulkner finds the potential for inspiration and fulfillment. The next time that you have five free minutes, I encourage you to read Faulkner’s speech in its entirety. While it may not lead to a strangely fervent appreciation for the Nobel Prize speech as an art form, as the one I admittedly bear, its powerful message is well worth such a small portion of your time.