Feelings are mixed about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. The world is full of people who are applauding the Swedish academy’s decision to give its award to a musician instead of a novelist, poet, or essayist. Dylan was a fantastic choice, the thinking goes, because he’s a craggy-faced, frog-throated icon of American pop culture who doesn’t have enough awards and deserves way more recognition than he gets. A Nobel for Dylan? Why not. Nothing else in the world makes sense, either—so yes, it’s a perfect choice.
Then there’s me. I’ll come right out and say it: No, I don’t think Bob Dylan should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here’s why:
For one thing, the decision runs counter to the Swedish academy’s grand tradition of giving its award to writers from parts of the world that most Americans don’t even know exist, and who write in languages that use an entirely different alphabet. Conspicuous obscurity is an important hallmark of literature’s top prize, one that should not be dispensed with so cavalierly. As everyone knows, when the Nobel prize is announced, you’re supposed to think, “Who?,” not “WTF?”
Last year’s pick, Belarus journalist Svetlana Alexievich, was a perfect choice. By choosing Alexievich, a writer few people in America have ever heard of, let alone read, the academy maintained a firm grip on its own intellectual superiority while simultaneously thumbing its nose at American culture—two important prerequisites for a respectable Nobel choice.
By choosing Bob Dylan, however, the academy essentially destroyed its hard-won credibility by giving the award to someone every American knows, and who writes mostly in English (though he often sings in his own strange language). Not only does the nod to Dylan render some aspects of American culture marginally respectable (a big no-no in Nobel circles), it revealed for all the world to see that the Swedish academy is no longer comprised entirely of contemptuous cultural snobs who hate America. On the contrary, the Nobel committee’s dalliance with Dylan suggests that not only has its legendary disdain for American culture dissipated, the turgid gravity of its purpose has been replaced by a quirkily impish sense of humor.
The decision process seems to have gone something like this:
“Wouldn’t it be funny if we gave it to Bob Dylan?”
“Why yes it would, old chap.”
“Shake things up a bit, it would.”
“No one would expect it.”
“Time to throw the Yanks a bone?”
“No one reads literature anymore anyway. What's the point of giving it to a novelist?”
“Lets do it, then. All in favor, say ‘ay.’”
(Laughter all around.)
This sort of frivolity is unacceptable for several reasons, not the least of which is that the Nobel is supposed to go to serious writers—gloomy thinkers who grapple with society’s demons and wrestle with the big questions in large, heavy, impenetrable tomes that only a few brave souls can endure. Anyone can listen to a song. And a CD is only about three millimeters thick. This fact alone cheapens the Nobel prize immeasurably, reducing it to a populist thumbs-up for a man half the world already thinks of as the poet-prophet of his generation. What does giving Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize do for anyone except put a huge stamp of approval on a guy almost everyone already approves of? The insecurity is shocking. It’s almost as if the Nobel committee wants Americans to like them.
Now, the question is: If the organization that hands out the Nobel prize can’t take itself seriously, how can anyone else? Clearly, the committee’s standards for “serious” literature have slipped, and its failure to understand the consequences of its actions is nothing short of alarming.
One unfortunate by-product I’m sure the committee did not take into account is the numbing effect of so many headline puns saturating the world’s media all at once.
“Knockin’ on history’s door: Bob Dylan wins the Nobel.”
“The times they are a changin’: a songwriter wins the Nobel.”
“The man from north country wins a Nobel.”
“It’s no jokerman: Dylan wins the Nobel.
“Blood on the stacks: Dylan won the Nobel?”
It’s all too much. Headline writers are simple folk, and they cannot resist a pun, especially an obvious one. To unleash such a wave of wanton wordplay on the unsuspecting public—with no warning or precedent to soften the blow—well, it’s just cruel. And unnecessary. If they’d just given the thing to Kenyan playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o, none of this would have happened.
Many people are happy Dylan won, of course, because it means that architects might be able to win an Academy Award now, and dentists might be able to win a Grammy. If a musician can win a prize for literature, after all, what’s to prevent a welder from winning the Pillsbury Bake-off? Others like the fact that Dylan is not a writer, per se, which makes this year’s selection a lot less boring. Oh, and there’s the added benefit of not actually having to read anything Dylan has ever written; all you have to do is listen to his songs. The songs are better when someone else is playing them, of course, but that’s okay, because this is an award for literature, not musicianship.
Of course, what the pro-Dylan-Nobel camp doesn’t realize is that something more sinister may be going on here as well. It is possible that the Swedish academy hates American writers so much that it decided to send an intellectually devastating message—by snubbing all the actual American writers on its short list (Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, John Ashbery) and giving its prize to, snort, a songwriter. I mean, if you were the sort of person who really, really, really hated American writing, and were so obsessed with your own literary loathing that you couldn’t resist an opportunity to piss American writers off for an entire generation, giving the Nobel prize to Bob Dylan makes a crazy kind of sense. Now the Swedish academy doesn’t have to consider another American writer for another thirty years or so, and by then Kanye West will be Jesus, so the choice will once again be an easy one.
So no, I don’t think Bob Dylan should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I recognize his name, I can understand what he’s saying most of the time, and I can even play some of his literature on the guitar. Those are all disqualifications in my book. If I could strum a few bars of D.H. Lawrence, I might feel differently, but I can’t. On the other hand, I have found that playing the harmonica while reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch does help pass the time.
Maybe the Nobel committee knows more about the state of world literature than it’s letting on.