It’s no easy task, setting the stage for a literary speaker. You want to be eloquent, informative, admiring, perhaps a bit witty; you want to please both the audience (who haven’t come to see you) and the writer in question (who has probably heard some slight variation of what you’re saying a hundred times or more).
The writer and poet Paul West explores this “ancient little-honored literary form” in an entertaining essay for Gargoyle magazine (issue #53, not available online). West, who has written more than 20 books and, I’m guessing, been the subject of more than a few introductions over the years, shares some tales from the trenches.
Once, the person introducing me bit his tongue so badly that blood poured over his necktie onto the index card on which he had inscribed my entire life. Another time, one of the more combative younger poets introduced a colleague in terms so stark and acidulous the speaker seemed struck dumb: ‘If I were you,” our host opined, “I’d go do something else, not listen to this genius’s gibberish; he screws better than he writes.”
On the other hand, West notes, there are those whose introductions outshine the actual speaker, such as the writer and essayist Stanley Elkin, who was known for giving introductions “of such glistening eloquence, such magisterial authority, such daunting length, that the speaker, humbled, only mumbled, aching to get off and away, not having been warned what he/she would have to follow.”
. . . William H. Gass used to do a similar thing, reading an introduction even more resplendent than anything of Elkin’s, achieving something between encyclopedia entry and red-hot book review, leaving you more or less to flounder (or shine) in the afterglow, but with one big plus: he left behind him a cloud of menthol and eucalyptus from the big toffee on which he had sucked to clear his tubes. So, even as you trotted up into that aroma and began, your sinuses behaved and you excelled. Or, choked by newly descended phlegm, you choked on your finest phrases.