News that songwriter Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature shook the literati worldwide. Here was a pop icon sitting in the august company of Alice Munro, Mario Vargas Llosa, Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter, V.S. Naipaul, Gabriel García Márquez, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Yasunari Kawabata, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, Rudyard Kipling and many others. Novelists, essayists and poets. No songwriters, and especially no commercially successful, popular songwriters until the 75-year-old Dylan.
And, we hope, that surely opens the door for similarly talented and poetic songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen; writers of great power, subtlety, depth and passion (both Canadians, I should note). But not everyone agrees: the appointment has brought out the finest snobbery among the literati.
Social and traditional media erupted. Is he really a poet, some asked. Incredulously wondering, did Dylan meet the criteria? Does pop culture deserve such accolades?
The New York Times approved, and said his appointment redefines the “boundaries of literature.” I’m with them. Leave the old and fusty nattering nabobs of negativity to their grumbles and celebrate the choice.
As the NYT noted,
Literary scholars have long debated whether Mr. Dylan’s lyrics can stand on their own as poetry, and an astonishing volume of academic work has been devoted to parsing his music. The Oxford Book of American Poetry included his song “Desolation Row,” in its 2006 edition, and Cambridge University Press released “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan” in 2009, further cementing his reputation as a brilliant literary stylist.
Yeah, let’s just stop there and say it: yes, he deserved it. The NYT piece adds,
In giving the literature prize to Mr. Dylan, the academy may also be recognizing that the gap has closed between high art and more commercial creative forms.
“It’s literature, but it’s music, it’s performance, it’s art, it’s also highly commercial,” said David Hajdu, a music critic for The Nation who has written extensively about Mr. Dylan and his contemporaries. “The old categories of high and low art, they’ve been collapsing for a long time, but this is it being made official.”
Actually, they collapsed way back in the early 1960s, but the stuffy establishment balked – and still balks – at accepting the walls had come down. Or even acknowledge the boundaries had become irrevocably blurred.
Culture defines us, but for many decades pop culture has been seen as mere entertainment, the lingering legacy of tin pan alley. And in part, that still holds true. A vast amount of pop music has always been simply for entertainment, for dancing, to fill the time between radio commercials, not for any intellectual or social content. It still is.
The contributions of writers like Dylan to the broader political, social and educational cultures was often overlooked. His songs reached more than the ears: they reached the heart and the brain. They raised issues, they told stories, they questioned authority. They used metaphor and symbol.
Sean O’Hagan, writing in The Guardian, agrees the award is well-deserved:
In the debate inevitably fuelled by the Nobel prize about whether Dylan songs can be regarded as literature, one inevitably thinks of the sheer ambition of songs such as the insular, mysterious Visions of Johanna or the epic, 11-minute ballad, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. On them, Dylan went where no one had gone before or has gone since in terms of the pop song; 50 years on, they may still be the most forceful arguments in his favour. For me, though, the austere Dylan songs still cast a spell, and my other favourites include the haunting Tears of Rage and the faith-driven Every Grain of Sand, songs that seem as powerful in their rigour and restraint as the more extravagant outpourings from the mid-60s.
But as a counterpoint, Tim Stanley, writing in The Telegraph, snarled:
A culture that gives Bob Dylan a literature prize is a culture that nominates Donald Trump for president. It is a culture uninterested in qualifications and concerned only with satisfying raw emotional need. There is pandering on the Left and pandering on the Right. It becomes very hard to engage on the basis of reason because reason is discriminatory. It requires thought and effort not only to use it but to understand it. Much, much easier to go with your gut. It’s not a huge leap from saying “Dylan because I like him” to “Trump because I feel like him.” It’s all lowbrow.
Stanley whinges that Dylan is a “…a man who hasn’t written any literature.” That’s incorrect. Stanley seems to have forgotten (as many have), Dylan’s novel, Tarantula. True, it was not well received, and critics generally scorned it, but it does classify as literature. And he is, apparently, writing another.
But novels aren’t the only criteria. According to the Nobel site, literature is defined as:
…”not only belles-lettres, but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value”. At the same time, the restriction to works presented “during the preceding year” was softened: “older works” could be considered “if their significance has not become apparent until recently”.
The website notes Dylan was awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” *
Perhaps more important is Dylan’s reaction to the prize: silence. As if to say the accolades don’t matter; only the art does. As The Guardian reported:
The Swedish Academy says it has given up trying to reach Bob Dylan, days after it awarded him the Nobel prize in literature.
“Right now we are doing nothing. I have called and sent emails to his closest collaborator and received very friendly replies. For now, that is certainly enough,” the academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, told state radio SR on Monday.
So far the American troubadour has responded with silence since he won the prize on Thursday.
Perhaps the committee would consider passing it along to his friend, the 82-year-old Leonard Cohen, who said about the appointment,
“To me, [the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”
Yes, but the act of identification, of acknowledging that supreme height also is a form of closure, a shared acceptance of the facts. That doesn’t mean everyone loves Bob Dylan: he’s been a polarizing love-hate icon ever since his first time onstage. That doesn’t diminish his stature.
Cohen, on the other hand, has what the elitist literati accept as legitimate qualifications: he was a published novelist and poet before he became a songwriter, and even without the music, the lyrics of his songs are beautiful poetry. Both he and Dylan have provided their share of baffling, infuriating, symbolic, religiously-infused and deeply moving songs. But to me there is (generally) a more vulnerable, self-searching element in Cohen’s work, especially the later material. Maybe that plays to my own vulnerabilities a little more (not to mention Cohen’s Buddhist background…).
Arwa Haider, on The BBC, posted a list of 12 other songwriters who deserve the Nobel prize for their work. Cohen and Mitchell are among them – I have to admit that some on the list leave me cold and others – like the self-aggrandizing buffoon Kanye West – suggest that at least some of the article is actually a satire. A really nasty satire.
Still, the discussion is welcome (as long as it remains reasonable and Kanye is not mentioned in that context ever, ever again. Ever…). We should ask who deserves the award and why. Why some and not others? Where do we draw the lines and who makes the choices?
Sure, it was a novelty, but as it noted on the Consequence of Sound website, someone had to go first. He won’t be the last songwriter to be so honoured.
I think the award to Dylan will make future Nobel awards for literature very interesting – if the committee doesn’t fall back to its reactionary safe zone, and ignore the ground they broke so courageously in 2016.
Maybe there’s still a chance for Leonard Cohen to get his, too. And Joni Mitchell, too.
* My own appreciation for Dylan goes back to 1963-64, when I was listening to folk music by such groups and singers as Pete Seeger, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Simon and Garfunkel, Fred Neil and Bob Dylan. Dylan released The Times They Are a-Changin that year, an album I played until I wore it out, an album I still listen to, 50 years later. Then in 1965, he went electric and shocked (pardon the pun…) the folk world in the summer of 1965 when he released his seven-minute hit song, Like a Rolling Stone. I loved that song and it led me to buy a lot more of his music afterwards. It was one of those songs we all learned to play on guitar back in the 60s, and you’d be surprised how many of the lyrics I can still recall. I still play many of his songs on guitar and ukulele, albeit most are from pre-1985.