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“People Disagreeing Everywhere You Look”: Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

Mitchell Albert By Mitchell Albert Published on October 14, 2016
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Ill: N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2016

The annual announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature always provides an excuse for an easily rationalized break in a publisher’s working day (it’s “industry-related”, you see). First stop: social media. 

Yesterday’s online cascade of responses to the news that Bob Dylan won the Prize made for an especially fascinating diversion from the posts and tweets that have predominated of late: anxieties over the US election, the never-ending Brexit saga and the ravages of the war in Syria. After an unreasonable couple of hours spent monitoring reactions in real time, it seemed certain that this instalment of the Prize would go down as the most polarizing Literature Nobel ever.

As with any awarding of a Nobel, dissent and outrage over the final choice is inevitable, especially when the pool is so vast and varied. Yet the Nobel committee appears to have struck a particularly sensitive nerve this year amongst those who make a living from words.

Aminatta Forna, in her Facebook feed, acknowledged Bob Dylan as a “great artist” but added that “this feels like a real smack in the face for books, those of us who love them and those of us who devote our lives to writing them.” When asked to expand on these thoughts, she said simply: “It seems to me musicians are well enough rewarded within their own industry.”

Sunny Singh, Chair of the London-based Authors’ Club, expressed disappointment with the choice: “The Nobel committee has utterly debased itself and the prize.” Taking care to speak for herself and not the Club, she added, privately: “To pick Dylan over all the extraordinary writers from across the globe … places [the committee] squarely amongst those who fetishise nostalgia and remain fearful of the present and the future.”

Hari Kunzru seemed to sigh in his tweet: “This feels like the lamest Nobel win since they gave it to Obama for not being Bush.” Aleksandar Hemon, who had more than one mordant Facebook comment on the topic, posted: “I was going to work on my book today, but took up a mandolin instead and wrote a song about rain coming. And then one about a train coming. And then one about Santa coming.” (He also posted the lyrics to Man Gave Names to All the Animals, widely considered one of Dylan’s worst songs; elsewhere, other sceptics followed suit wittily, posting the words to Dylan miscalculations such as Wiggle Wiggle and If Dogs Run Free.)

Salman Rushdie, on the other hand, tweeted: “From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.” Hay Festival director Peter Florence echoed this sentiment privately in the same words, saying it was “great to have a lyricist honoured … [This goes] right back to Homer and the bardic tradition.” The Zimbabwean novelist Petina Gappah, an ardent Dylan admirer, simply posted: “YES!!!!!!!!! And again YES!!!!!”

The hot topic is the question of what constitutes “literature” in the first place. The committee explained its choice as recognition that Dylan has “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Did it bestow the honor on a poet, then? A singer? A songwriter? Or does it really matter?

Of course, the committee has recognized poetry since the Swedish Academy began distributing Alfred Nobel’s money in 1901: the French poet Sully Prudhomme was the first Literature Laureate. Much of the furor over Dylan, however, centers on the apparent distinction between songwriting and poetry, between lyrics intended for musical accompaniment and words released onto the page. (Nor is this a new debate where Dylan is concerned: check out this entertaining New York Times article from 1965.)

Indeed, music has its own generous prizes, but so does literature – all those Bookers, Baileys, Pulitzers and such, as well as prizes for short stories and poetry. The remit of the Literature Nobel (its founder’s exact words are open to interpretation) often seems to be the elevation of a worthy writer or body of work to greater prominence because it has been neglected (hardly the case this year), or because it is more relevant than ever, or too authoritative to pass up. Yet perhaps one function of the Prize may be to occasionally expand the limits of all that can be expressed by the concept of “literature”. Playwrights and dramatists have long been uncontroversial recipients of Literature Nobels, but surely their medium can be interrogated in a similar way?

The tussle over the definition of “poetry” may best be left to the academics. What is self-evident is that master lyricists are able not only to endow words with emotional energy but also with cadence, euphony, rhythmic power. And at the end of the day, as the Hay Festival’s Florence later posted: “Has he told stories that we know to be true? Has he wrought language into beauty? Has he helped us understand the world?” He added: “I hope Ngugi and Atwood win Nobels too.”

    Interview with Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy

    Mitch Albert is the London-based publisher of Periscope, an independent publishing house for literary fiction and non-fiction.