It’s like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.
~Leonard Cohen, songwriter
When the Nobel Prize Committee announced on October 13 that Bob Dylan would receive their 109th Award for Literature, the reaction in Duluth—Dylan’s birthplace—was mostly pride and joy.
“I imagine he’s quite surprised and deeply honored and I firmly believe he deserves it,” says John Bushey, an organizer of the annual Duluth Dylan Fest and the host of Highway 61 Revisited on KUMD.
“The morning I saw he got the prize, I gasped,” says Bart Sutter, Duluth’s first poet laureate and a decorated writer many times over. “Then I laughed aloud. Who ever said the Swedes were stodgy?”
Based in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy makes the decision in awarding the Literature Prize. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, left his fortune in a trust to be awarded “to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Past recipients include Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, and Toni Morrison.
The Committee awarded Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy called him “a great poet in the English-speaking tradition,” comparing his songs to the works of Homer and Sappho. “They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, that were meant to be performed, often with instruments—and it’s the same way with Bob Dylan.”
I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.
~Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting
The controversy in awarding Dylan the Nobel Prize has less to do with the quality of his work than with whether songwriting ought to win a prize for literature. In a New Republic “conversation” between editors Alex Shephard and Ryu Spaeth, the latter explained his opinion that this award is a “farcical screw-up”:
Music is an entirely different mode of expression that uses tools that are unavailable to the writer...[I]s the ache on a song like “Girl from the North Country” expressed by the lyrics or the harmonica, or some combination of the two? Music is melody and rhythm and harmony and, at its best, writing can achieve only one of those characteristics (rhythm). There’s a reason you always hear that Walter Pater line: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” It’s because music exists in this other sphere where form and subject are identical, where the sound of a harmonica represents nothing more than the sound of a harmonica. How can any other art compete? Dylan adds words to that sound, but the sound is a bass line, so to speak.
Sutter, who does poetry-and-music performances with his brother, takes the opposite approach, describing the quality of Dylan’s work as “uneven,” but defending lyrics as a form of poetry. “Poetry has an ancient history of being associated with song. ‘Beowulf’ was written to be performed on a string instrument...His early ballads [like “Girl from the North Country”], I recognize as poetry.”
Bushey takes it a step further. “Dylan’s music is only able to be understood when it’s performed. Every record he’s made, he’s said, ‘That’s just a starting point,’ and he develops the song over the course of performance. That’s one reason people either love Dylan or hate Dylan...There seems to be more controversy because of the perception that he’s the first songwriter to win for literature.”
Dylan is actually the second songwriter (and the second Duluthian) to receive the Prize for Literature. In 1913, it was awarded to Bengali songwriter Rabindranath Tagore. (Duluthian Sinclair Lewis won in 1930.)
I totally get the Nobel Committee. Reading books is hard.
~Gary Shteyngart, novelist
Unlike other literature awards, the Nobel Committee does not release a long list or a short list, leaving speculation to the betting markets. The odds-on favorites this year were Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (4:1 odds), Syrian poet Adonis (6:1), American novelist Philip Roth (7:1), and Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (10:1).
Dylan was a 50-to-1 long shot whose odds may have improved because an American has not won the Literature Prize since Toni Morrison in 1993. It also did not hurt that the Nobel Committee’s selections over the last century have focused on writers who championed human rights.
“Dylan’s biggest influence wasn’t so much on popular culture in the ’60s,” says Bushey, “but his influence on those who were influential in the ’60s...His songs became anthems of the anti-war movement. He expressed the feeling that something was wrong, which everyone was feeling, but no one else was able to put it into words.”
“I’m glad he got it,” says Sutter. “I also hope they don’t give it to a songwriter every year...But I’m Swedish and I’m not too worried about that. They have standards.”
If Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize for Literature, then I think Stephen King should get elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
~Jason Pinter, novelist
Slippery slope arguments aside, there are several factors that would preclude pop stars like Beyoncé or Justin Bieber from ever being considered for a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Candidates must compose their own lyrics. That rules out such influential performers as Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra. In addition, candidates must have produced a substantial body of work. Dylan has so far written 522 songs. By comparison, Michael Jackson wrote 96.
Besides, Dylan falls far short of being a commercial cash cow. He has never had a #1 song on the Billboard charts (“Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965 and “Rainy Day Women” in 1966 made it to #2). Nor is Dylan even close to being on the same level of commercial success as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Supremes, Michael Jackson, or even Eminem. What Dylan has in common with those artists is critical reputation.
Critics have said that I’ve made a career out of confounding expectations. Really?...Like I stay up late at night thinking about how to do it. “What do you do for a living, man?” “Oh, I confound expectations.” You’re going to get a job, the man says, “What do you do?” “Oh, confound expectations.” And the man says, “Well, we already have that spot filled. Call us back.”
~Bob Dylan, 2015 MusiCares speech
For five days after the Nobel Committee announced their selection, Dylan went radio silent, offering no public acknowledgement of the award and failing to respond to the Swedish Academy’s telephone calls. A week later, he noted it on his website, but then removed the note.
Finally, on October 28, he telephoned the Swedish Academy to accept. “If I accept the prize? Of course! The news about the Nobel Prize left me speechless. I appreciate the honor so much.”
Then on November 16, he sent a letter saying he would not appear in Stockholm on December 10 to receive the award due to “pre-existing commitments.”
“That was pretty graceless,” says Sutter. “He may have his reasons, but it’s too bad. It’s the most prestigious literary award in the Western Hemisphere.”
Sutter posits that perhaps Dylan has won so many awards that it just does not seem very significant or that he may even be dodging intrusive fans. “But I’m speculating and that’s what annoys me. Part of Dylan’s shtick is getting people to speculate.”
Bushey chalks it up to Dylan’s self-consciousness. “He’s not the most secure person and he may not believe he deserved it...He’s a very private man in a very public career. He’s said he’d rather live his life in obscurity...If he has a previous commitment and that was important enough to him, then I respect that.”
Jennifer Martin-Romme assisted with this story.