Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Win (And Defending Him Against Some Criticisms)

So, if you somehow missed the news, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature last Thursday. To say this was unexpected would be downplaying it; his possible candidacy had long been treated like a joke, a way to throw away money at betting sites (because not only can you bet on the Nobel, it’s a prime way speculation works).

I admit, I’m not head over heels with the pick. My initial reaction when Sarah Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, aka the ones in charge of the decision, read out his name, I was shocked, wondering if I hadn’t misheard her—that “D,” did she mean DeLillo? After all, everyone was saying it looked like DeLillo’s year (based on odds movement on the betting sites). Nope, she repeated herself, and it was in fact Bob Dylan. Over the course of Thursday, I stewed over the news, and I got over my initial disbelief and came to listen to more Dylan, I accepted the decision as a good one. He’s still not the American I would’ve picked, maybe not even in the top 5, but I’ve stopped thinking of literary prizes as representing the best of the best and instead wonder if winners reach my vague idea of quality based on the standard from past laureates. On this basis, then yes, Dylan was a good choice. And, even better, I like the Swedish Academy’s ideas of songwriting as literature—surprisingly forward thinking from a committee often known for being too conservative.

Predictably, his win set off a ton of mixed reactions, even more so than usual. Gone were the articles about how no one knew the winner or that Philip Roth should’ve gotten it; pieces questioning whether Dylan deserved the Nobel instead took the center stage. While some of those that were pro Dylan had nonsensical arguments, it was the ones arguing against his win really annoyed me, and here I’ll be doing my best to defend Dylan against some of the ridiculous reasons he didn’t deserve the Nobel.

Songwriting isn’t literature.

I think this is one of the most common criticisms I’ve seen. It’s BS. Of course songwriting can be literature. Is all of it? No, but then not all books are literature, either. Poetry has been tied to singing for as long as there’s been poetry.

Some have said that because the lyrics don’t hold up as well on the page as other poetry and they rely on being sung to sound truly powerful, it doesn’t count. For whatever reasons, when I’ve seen this come up, plays are usually okay, because they’re still gripping when read, but movie scripts aren’t. I don’t see the logic. It seems like an arbitrary cut off so that it helps the argument. For starters, plays definitely lose something when they’re read. Then there’s also musicals which just do not work at all on the page. Hamilton just won one of the most acclaimed literary prizes in the U.S. Where was the outrage then? I haven’t come across any compelling reasons to exclude songwriting from literature; if you know of any, please let me know.

Who will they award next, a Youtuber?

Okay, first of all, ignoring that slippery slope, as far as songwriting goes, Dylan is not your typical one. Academics have been analyzing his work since the 70s and he’s been nominated for the Nobel since the late 90s. Compare that to a Youtuber, or even most other songwriters. Second, he’s just better than almost every songwriter out there. Eminem is not going to suddenly win 30 years from now; Dylan won because he’s produced a large body of literary and critically acclaimed songs and lyrics.

This is actually a quite conservative choice dressed up as a progressive one.

Okay…and? This is one of the oddest critiques I’ve come across. Dylan’s an American white male, so this is actually quite a conventional pick. I don’t see the problem with his ethnicity. Sure, it’s annoying the Swedish Academy doesn’t award more PoC, but Dylan still deserves his Nobel. And no matter how you look at it, awarding a songwriter for the first time is definitely a step forward. Sure, it might not be the radical choice you wanted, but it’s still something new, and anyway, I don’t see how this in anyway takes away from the decision to give it to Dylan.

If they were going to award it to him, why not give it during the 60s or 70s when he was still producing quality work?

This just displays ignorance about how the Literature Nobel works. Almost all winners are older. Getting it at 75 is pretty common. The youngest winners recently have been in their mid 50s, and those were close to being outliers. Also, you don’t win for a few hits; your entire body of work is awarded. In the 70s, he didn’t have nearly the body of work (nor the age) winners often have.

In addition, the Swedish Academy made a point to mention his memoir from 2004 and his album Modern Times, which debuted 10 years ago, when discussing his work. Not the most recent “masterpieces,” but longer gaps between last published quality works and winning have happened (see: Harold Pinter and Doris Lessing).

The prize should’ve gone to a lesser known writer who needed the money.

 Contrary to popular belief, most writers who win the Nobel aren’t just scraping by. In fact, a lot are bestsellers (just not in the U.S.). Mo Yan, Patrick Modiano and J.M.G. Le Clezio, despite being virtually unknown in the English speaking world, were all bestselling novelists in their home countries. Alexievich did say it would allow her to pursue one or two projects she needed to save for, but she’s also an exception, as her nonfiction work requires her to travel a lot. And, anyway, where was the outrage over this when Alice Munro and Mario Vargas Llosa won? They were both incredibly famous and didn’t need the Nobel to pin themselves into literary history.

Him over _____ (insert other writer here)?

This reaction comes up almost every year. It’s how prizes that can only pick each winner a year work. Someone has to win, and plenty of others have to lose. Sorry the Swedes’ taste in literature doesn’t exactly line up with yours, but then it doesn’t perfectly line up with anyone’s, not even individual committee members (there have been some nasty disputes over past winners).

I don’t think Dylan’s lyrics (poetry) compare to the work of other poets.

This is actually one of the few arguments circulated against Dylan’s win that I feel really holds merit. True, it’s subjective, but then all literature is. And it’s not some weak protest that crumbles under closer scrutiny. If you don’t like Dylan, you don’t like Dylan, nothing wrong with that. But don’t dress up your dislike and pretend it’s something that it’s not. “Oh, I like Dylan, but he’s a musician not a writer. He shouldn’t win.” “He’s so rich and won so many other prizes, did he really need this one?” etc.

And at the end of the day, it’s just another literary prize. Granted, it’s one of the oldest ones around, but the Nobel has made almost as many missteps as it has awarded true greatness. Only time will tell if Dylan is a great choice or a gimmick winner best forgotten, but if you ever find yourself arguing over the Nobel, just remember that’s it’s far from the end all be all in books.

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