And the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature goes to. . . Bob Dylan! What?! Why not?!
No question that this was a controversial award. There are many who have applauded it, but there are a vocal few who feel that giving this award to a white, American song-writer who has gained fame and fortune by setting his accessible, quotable lyrics to music has cheapened the Nobel. The most quoted tweet of dissent has come from Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (author of “Trainspotting”), who wrote “this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” Unfortunately for Welsh, this one tweet may become the most famous thing he ever wrote, and he will live to regret it. What people aren’t remembering is that the Nobel in Literature has always been fraught with controversy. There has always been a rarefied elite-ness about the Nobel Prize, and when it has been given in the past to a populist author, it has usually been met with some kind of dissent or other. It is as if you can only win the Nobel Prize if nobody reads your work, at least nobody looking for a good summer beach book.
In my lifetime, I recall the controversy that tainted William Golding’s win in 1983. Golding was chiefly remembered for “Lord of the Flies,” a book that most literate people encounter in junior high or high school. While the Nobel is awarded for a lifetime body of work (unlike most literary awards), Golding’s Nobel was inevitably perceived as being awarded for “Lord of the Flies”–which some literary snobs considered to be a novel for juveniles–if only because it towered over all his other novels in terms of popularity and sales. In a shocking breach of etiquette, Swedish Academy member and poet Artur Lundkvist declared that Golding was “a small British phenomenon of no importance” and that he was “decent but hardly in the Nobel class.” Knowing that he had violated the code of secrecy about the Nobel voting process by publicly discussing the dissension over the choice of Golding, he clumsily tried to soften his stance by stating “I simply don’t consider Golding to possess the international weight needed to win the prize, but that doesn’t mean I am against him. He is a good author.” I tremble to think what Lundkvist (who died in 1991) would have had to say about Bob Dylan.
The Nobel Prize was created upon the death of Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, in his last will and testament. For the literary prize, he specified that it should be given to “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” The term “work” has been taken to mean the entire body of an author’s work as a whole, although sometimes the Swedish Academy mentions a particular work in their citation of the Nobel award. The Swedish word idealisk has been given a shifting interpretation over the years by the Academy. In the early years, the idealism that was awarded had more to do with literary style, so that grittily realistic authors (such as Tolstoy or Chekhov) or more avant-garde authors (such as Joyce or Proust) were rejected. Later, the idealism had more to do with championing causes, or human rights, or just reaching an ideal pinnacle of literary achievement.
While the Swedish Academy is very secretive about the nomination and voting process for the Nobel, not even releasing the short list of “also rans” for 50 years after each year’s award, one can sense a bit of their rationale by reading the citation for the award. Bob Dylan’s citation says he was given the award “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” A Nobel spokesperson points out that Bob Dylan has handled lyrical material in an absolutely original way that draws on English poetic tradition all the way back to Milton, that he has assimilated both the “high” literary tradition and the “low” folk tradition, and that he has appropriated elements of everything ranging from folk song to delta blues to Rimbaud.
Perhaps the dissenters are thinking only of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War,” both of which Dylan wrote when he was still a teenager. Those songs have very simple lyrics, but they have endured because they sound like traditional folk songs that pre-existed the young man who wrote them by generations. Yet there is a lot more to Dylan, and his dissenters need to read (and listen) deeper. The 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks,” for instance, offers a mini-course in Dylan as poet with the psychedelic “Tangled Up in Blue,” the long-form song-epic “Hurricane,” and Dylan’s prescient answer to his Nobel critics “Idiot Wind.” Over a lifetime, Dylan has become a walking encyclopedia of American popular music and he has distilled all the major elements of the art form (with the exception of rap & hip-hop) into his art. His influence has been vast. Even if you hate his voice or his stage presence (or lack thereof), you cannot deny his pervasive influence as a songwriter. Unlike all but a handful of artists, he has remained relevant in six separate decades. If anyone has achieved Nobel’s ideal, if idealisk has anything to do with arriving at the pinnacle of one’s art, I submit that Dylan deserves the Nobel according to its original author’s definition.
Much of the difficulty the snobs will have with Dylan will come with their insistence on evaluating his literary skill by reading his words on a page with the music detached from the words, as if he were a poet in the traditional sense. Dylan himself knows that he does not excel at that sort of writing, which is probably, at least in part, why he abandoned his unfinished poetic novel “Tarantula” in the 1960’s (although it was later published–due to the fact that it had become legendary in manuscript.) A snob will think Dylan’s song lyrics to be doggerel because they aren’t always that obtuse or lofty, and because his lines sometimes end with simple rhymes. But pop song lyrics are not meant to be divorced from their music. The best music has a way of turning a clever phrase into something much more meaningful or memorable or profound. To dismiss Dylan because he reads like doggerel when his words are shorn of the music is to declare that opera is bad because a lot of the stories are silly. The stories of most operas, taken alone as synopsis on paper, don’t spell great art. But combined with powerful voices, a fine orchestra, sumptuous music, and a grand hall, an opera becomes something much greater than its story. So it goes with a Bob Dylan song.
Those who think that the Nobel Prize should go only to novelists, dramatists, and poets need also to examine the history of the prize. Out of 113 recipients since 1901, the Literature prize has gone to three authors who wrote mostly history and three other authors who wrote mostly philosophy. Some of the winners who were primarily novelists or poets have also been more notable as essayists or memoirists. So there is no precedent that the prize belongs only to novelists, poets, and dramatists–and there is nothing in Nobel’s instructions that says the prize cannot go to a songwriter.
So kudos to Bob Dylan, who to my mind completely fulfills Nobel’s conception of an artist whose entire body of work translates into an ideal. There is no other musician alive in America today whose work has been so literate and who so thoroughly embodies a coalescence of almost all that is the American musical tradition in the corpus of one artist’s life’s work.
–Dale D. Dalenberg MD