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Nobel Prize in Literature for Bob Dylan: Groundbreaking or Absurd?

Aga Zano By Aga Zano Published on October 13, 2016

And so it happened. After last year's recognition of Svetlana Alexievich - a choice as unsurprising as unusual - 2016 Nobel Prize for the American singer-songwriter was another step towards genre expansion.

Dylan received the prestigious accolade “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, as the Academy explains. However, the Committee well knew the choice is bound to be polarising. After the announcement, Sara Danis, the Academy's Secretary, said she "hopes the Academy would not be criticised for its choice".

It is quickly shaping up to be the most controversial Nobel Committee choice in Literature since Elfriede Jelinek. When the Austrian novelist and playwright received her award in 2004, it led to a great stir in the media. It even caused one member of the Committee, the Swedish author Knut Ahnlund, to quit the Academy in protest. Ahnlund called Jelinek's work "whingeing, unenjoyable, violent pornography" and accused the Committee of causing "irreparable harm to the value of the award for the foreseeable future".

Of course, Bob Dylan, revered artist and one of the greatest pop-culture icons of the 20th century, does not have to fear similar wave of rage. 

Last year, Svetlana Alexievich received her award as the first non-fiction author to write exclusively about living people, and the first writer from Belarus, an oppressed post-Soviet country, torn by political unrest and economical collapse, a country that rarely - if ever - receives recognition for its cultural accomplishments. 

      The Nobel Prize for Dylan is dividing the Internet in a different way, though. It's interesting to watch the controversy unfold: normally, not many people outside culture and publishing even give Nobel Prize announcements that much thought. Literary Nobel is as prestigious as it seems irrelevant and obscure to wide audiences. It does not carry the commercial impact of Man Booker or Pulitzer. It does not boost sales, especially when a non-English writing author is chosen (only about 3% of all books published in English are translations!). Finally, it does not earn the author much recognition outside academic circles, as it's considered too niche and supercilious to appeal to "regular" readership.

      Despite systemic flaws, the Nobel Prize remains important in terms of publicity: even though many Nobel laureates go unnoticed, for some the award was a great step to international fame and to accessing wide audiences who otherwise would probably never hear of them: Elfriede Jelinek, Orhan Pamuk, Dario Fo (who, heartbreakingly, passed away today), Mario Vargas Llosa, Wislawa Szymborska.

      This time, however, the Academy's decision sends a very different message. Many people are welcoming the award as crowning achievement in Dylan's impressive career. Dylan, known as one of the founding fathers of contemporary music, already holds an Oscar, a dozen Grammys, and a Golden Globe, apart from countless other accolades.

      Does Dylan need the Nobel Prize, though? And more importantly, does he deserve one? Of course, different opinions are being voiced all over the media. Some may consider this a great victory for songwriters, for whom this is an act of recognition by proxy: they are now officially considered legitimate artists and creators rather than mere entertainers in the circles of poetic and literary snobbery. 

      The award shows that contemporary discourse can be shaped by music - popular music! - as much as by more conventional forms of writing. It is an accomplishment in terms of opening up for different means of communication that deserve serious recognition in the modern world.

          Hovewer, the choice is controversial and there is no way of denying it.

          Firstly - and most importantly - Literary Nobel Prize is supposed to reward and recognise writers. Is songwriting enough to be considered "literary writing", or maybe this decision simply takes the spotlight away from those who have dedicated their lives and minds to prose and poetry? If songwriting is literature, then why cooking is not awarded in Chemistry, some people are asking - and they might have a point.

          Another issue is that we live in a world of countless languages and cultures, and yet Western, white and male still is celebrated to the point one may think it really is the only one capable of creating "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction".

          Does it, though? The favourite for this year's award was - unsurprisingly - the regular contender, Haruki Murakami. The Japanese novelist, although beloved by the public, receives mixed responses from the critics, especially in his own country (Japanese critics often dismiss Murakami for being "too European").

          Syrian poet, translator and theorist Adonis, boldly innovative and keen to experiment with Arab literary tradition, was another strong contestant. Another perennial contender was Czech-born but French-naturalised literary virtuoso Milan Kundera.

          Promising candidates also included Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o from Kenya, who used to write in English before switching to his native Kikuyu language. Wa Thiong’o is as versatile as profoundly talented: he is a widely recognised novelist, playwright, poet and essayist. In 1977 he was incarcerated for having penned a play that carried strong political resonance. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has then migrated to America, where he still lives, as he is not welcome in his motherland.

          The media were also speculating about the award going to the American novelist Joyce Carol Oates (one of the very few women considered for the Prize), Ismail Kadare - a novelist, poet and screenwriter from Albania, and Javier Marías, critically acclaimed writer and translator from Spain. 

              The Nobel Prize is expected to award the most outstanding authors (however this may be interpreted), but also to reward and popularise those who deserve attention, recognition and most importantly, reading. In the world so strongly dominated by Anglo-Saxon culture, it is too easy to forget that people of various languages, cultures, genders and races have a voice.

              An award for Bob Dylan is a choice that clearly resonates with lack of political and cultural involvement.

              Bob Dylan is already known to everyone who did not spend last five decades under a rock. He is one of the most celebrated figures in the history of contemporary music. He is an outstanding artist, musician and songwriter. However, he is primarily a musician, incredibly famous one for that matter. Rewarding an artist from the periphery of literature (if even), who is celebrated all over the world seems a little counterproductive and more than just a little unfair to all the writers forced to remain in the shadow of a musician. Some may consider it a controversy but many readers and writers will see it as an insult.

              It's an interesting and commendable phenomenon that the Academy chose to appreciate less respected form of artistic expression. It is, however, very sad that it chose to do so at the expense of those whose voice is as deserving as the voice of Bob Dylan, but unlike the latter, theirs may never get a chance to resound so loudly.

                Translator, linguist, copywriter, literary agent. Enjoys bad puns, exploring ruined buildings and being the weird one.