On Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize
The 2016 Nobel Peace Prize in Literature was awarded to American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. The Swedish Academy gave Dylan the award “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
While the decision was applauded by a few literary figures such as Stephen King and Salman Rushdie, it has sustained much criticism from others, who claim lyrics are not of the same stature as poems or novels.
While no one is arguing that Bob Dylan has not profoundly affected music and culture in America, many question whether or not Dylan’s work should be compared to Beckett, Hemingway, Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, just to name a few.
An American writer has not won since not 1983 when Toni Morrison was awarded the prize. Some who are part of the American literary community were further offended that perhaps lesser known, contemporary American authors were being overlooked for a pop culture artist.
In the century-long history of the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature, a musician has never been given this award. Since they have breached new ground, the Swedish Academy has tacitly asked the entire world to question what they think of when they think of literature.
Having an opinion on this situation is a tough road to navigate. On one hand, you don’t want literature to be pop music. You don’t want art to only have the function of making money, which is exactly how I would define most pop music. While Bob Dylan’s music certainly does not fall into the mindless music of the radio, I can see where the slippery slope begins.
But on the other hand, let’s not forget where literature and where poetry started. In the beginning, we told stories aloud. No one is arguing that Homer is not an important figure in literature. Even up until the medieval ages, someone’s job was to be a bard, walking from town to town singing and telling stories. Singing and songwriting is undoubtedly part of literature’s history, so since when is it not worthy of being recognized as a part of literature?
Much of the discussion surrounding Dylan’s award has been split between these two views. British novelist Salman Rushdie quite eloquently tweeted, “From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.” Whereas American writer Gary Shteyngart’s tweet read, “I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard.”
So having an opinion about the award is again a tricky road. While the tweets have been chuckle-worthy, I out-right guffawed at the Swedish Committee’s reaction to Bob Dylan’s silence.
Dylan is notoriously known for being a bit reclusive, but after it was announced who the award was being given to, there was silence on the Bob Dylan home front. The committee was calling, and Bob Dylan was not picking up. He did not confirm his acceptance of the award until a week after it had been announced.
A member of the academy called Dylan’s silence “impolite and arrogant.” The Swedish Academy gave Dylan a gift, they can’t just turn around and shame him for not appreciating it.
We all collectively believe in the prestige of this award. Bob Dylan threatens that presitge. There’s this idea that if Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize, then literature loses its value. Honestly, that’s completely ludicrous. Literature is not affected by who wins what award. Those who write literature are generally not writing to win awards.