When I first read that Bob Dylan received a Nobel Prize in Literature, I was a bit surprised. I confess, I can’t say that I usually keep tabs on the world of Nobel Prizes – it seems if I would have had my finger more on the pulse of that world, I would have seen hints of this coming (for example, this article and this article, which I discovered thanks to user Pangloss_ex_machina on Reddit). But a musician winning an award designed for literature?
My initial reaction to hearing a popular music name get a Nobel Prize in Literature is frustration. Music has its own vast variety of awards and accolades, none of which I imagine could interchangeably be awarded to those who solely pen the written word. Make no mistake, Bob Dylan is being awarded for is his songwriting. Quoted from the Noble Prize site sourced above:
“for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”
I mean, it seems like something they’d do simply to create a stir. We awarded a song writer the Nobel Prize in literature so people will talk about us again! I checked past recipients of the Literature prize – none of them have been song writers.
What does it say about literature today that a songwriter is winning their award? Or what does it say about the state of the Nobel Prize and what it signifies?
Executive director Jennifer Benkahe Academy of American Poets is quoted as stating:
“Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize in literature acknowledges the importance of literature’s oral tradition, and the fact that literature and poetry exists in culture in multiple modes.”
That’s a bit of a stretch. Certainly there’s poetry that is designed to be spoken, but poetry designed to go with music is called lyrics. The emphasis in music is shared between instrument and words, while in the world of literature it is simply the words that are the art. While oral traditions of poetry in ancient cultures included music, that’s a whole different animal. Trying to imply that because poetry has a variety of modes they are justified giving a Literature award to a modern musician falls flat to me.
Another aspect of this award that seems strange to me that the main body of Bob Dylan’s original work was in the 1960s. I checked the last 5 Nobel Laureates in Literature – each had published some sort of original work within 3 years of winning their award. I’m not sure what prompted the decision to award Bob Dylan in 2016.
This “conversation” article from the New Republic offers an explanation for that and, I feel, wraps this discussion up nicely:
Alex Shephard: […] one of the issues is that people think that the Nobel Prize exists to champion a certain kind of world literature. That would be a noble (ugh) thing to do! But it’s not really what the Nobel Prize has historically done, even if some of its choices veer in that direction. If nothing else, today is a reminder that the Nobel Prize in Literature is decided by six old Swedish people who clearly have a sense of humor.
As for your question about American literature: This prize is a big win for Baby Boomers and the world tends to lose when Boomers win. If there’s a silver lining for those bitter about the Dylan Nobel Prize, it’s that no Nobel Laureate will bring Boomers this much joy again. And it seems unlikely that any of the great post-war American writers will get the nod.
In my Nobel preview I wrote about America’s “deep bench.” There are a lot of people in that post-war generation who are deserving (or at least plausible) Nobel Laureates: Roth, Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Ursula Le Guin, DeLillo—hell, I’ll be nice for a change and throw Joyce Carol Oates into the mix. But if you start to look at the next generation, it gets a lot thinner. The ascendant generation—writers in their 50s and early 60s—isn’t as impressive: Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Chabon, Louise Erdrich, Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Franzen. (I shudder to think what will happen when Franzen’s name enters speculation in a few years.)
So I don’t know, really. The Underground Railroad makes me feel like Colson Whitehead will enter the conversation down the line, but he’s only 46, two decades-ish away from senior citizenry and Nobel speculation. I have faith in the younger generation, in other words, but they’re a long way out.
Ryu Spaeth: In another respect, the field has gotten WAY bigger. Kanye! Beyonce! Liam Gallagher! (I’ll be personally rooting for Liam, who is good at rock and roll and has a way with words.) David Bowie would have crushed Bob Dylan in the Nobel sweepstakes if he were still alive. Anyway, I’m glad you are happy. Tonight I’m going to pour one out for literature. RIP literature.