The Nobels They Are a-Changin’

Unless you’ve been living under a cultural rock for the last week, you’ve probably heard about the hullabaloo created by the Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded to Bob Dylan. I’ve mostly avoided getting involved in the subsequent raging debates – which have basically focused on whether or not a songwriter should be eligible for a literature prize, a question that seems to have been predominantly posed by prose writers trying to protect the pure legitimacy of one of the few prestigious prizes bestowed upon their artistic medium of choice – but an impassioned Facebook post that popped up in my newsfeed this morning inspired me to join the fray. Its author – responding to this article in The Guardian about Dylan’s refusal to accept or deny or even comment on this distinction – had this to say:

“Actually Bob – sod off. Crawl back into your cubbyhole under your big fat money-heavy-non-rolling stone that has been gathering moss for at least the last 10-15 years.

You are awarded this for what exactly? Song lyrics you wrote yonks ago. And yes they changed a lot, but so did the lyrics of Baez, Mitchell and many many other protest singers. Were you the first…nah there was a whole tradition of folk singers that preceded you.

Would you say you are still relevant today? Nope I didn’t think so. What good stuff of yours has been significant of late? Where is your social commentary on all that is wrong (I know, a very European, biased perspective of mine) in America. Are you still talented and brave enough to challenge today’s politics? Plenty to write about I’d say. America is your oyster Mr. Tambourine Man.

Of course I might have been looking in the wrong direction and totally missed all these brilliantly written protest songs challenging what is happening to the world right now. Do point me towards the right direction. 

So this silence this is really uncool, not strong or interesting, not stylish or a sign of commitment. Just really really uncool.

Accept the bloody prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Or don’t. If you want to be anti-establishionary – fine! Have a spine and refuse the bloody prize; plenty of other writers did for other important prizes and awards.

Otherwise accept that time is on your side and that many many respectable authors (I checked the list – OMG…you are nowhere near as great as most of the names on it) are being ignored because even the Nobel prize is aware of the impending doom that looms over America during these elections.

So come right out and say what you think. It used to be your strongest trump card.”

Here’s my response to her:

I agree that he should either accept or reject the prize instead of just ignoring it…but perhaps he’s just taking the amount of time that he requires to decide on the right course of action? I don’t know why he would need this long, but Dylan’s mind has always worked waaaaay differently than a normal human’s. With that being said, his response here has absolutely nothing to do with his qualifications for winning the award. In regards to the suggestion that he doesn’t deserve the prize because he hasn’t been a good writer in a number of years, I just patently disagree with that assertion. He’s undoubtedly one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, and even though he hasn’t contributed to his legacy in the 21st century, that should not take away from his prior achievements, which are plentiful enough to fill multiple lifetimes of other artists. Think about how many writers his songs influenced, including our boy Bruce.[1] Dylan made a lasting impact on literature that’s undeniable and deserves to be rewarded. There are other, more conventional authors who have stayed relevant for the entirety of their careers, but very few were as impactful on as wide of a scale as Dylan. Would you be upset if J.D. Salinger won because he’s basically shunned the rest of the world for most of his life? I personally think he deserves it just as much as Dylan – they have both made indelible marks on the history of literature, and that’s what this award is about. Dylan’s late-career malaise will undoubtedly affect his legacy, but this isn’t a lifetime achievement award – it’s an award for how he’s changed the artistic world, and that’s just irrefutable. Also, just because he hasn’t written good tunes recently does not mean he’s no longer relevant – I was not even alive when he was in his prime, yet still fell in love with his music because it’s timeless and speaks to every generation. I’m not a fan of modern Dylan by any stretch of the imagination – the concert I saw of his was probably the most disappointing of my life, especially because he so clearly didn’t care about his fans in the crowd – but this isn’t a behavioral award; it’s an award to recognize achievements in literature, and his are just too important to ignore.

Her comeback:

“Fair comments – I suppose I never truly fell in love with his work but many others did. And yes – he did get it for being pivotal in a (literary) change in music. I wasn’t around so I guess I have to trust the academy. So the Beatles and Elvis – also classed as pivotal I guess don’t qualify coz it wasn’t their lyrics that were pivotal? It is just…Cohen was pretty lyrical, Joni Mitchel, Tom Waits – in what way does Dylan excel these artists in your opinion?? After all, he wasn’t the first protest singer around, no?!”

And mine:

That’s the thing – my ‘opinion’ and your ‘opinion’ don’t really matter in regards to the award, as they shouldn’t. The people voting on the Nobels decide who’s had the most lasting impact. I agree with them that Dylan’s trumps Cohen’s, Mitchel’s, and Waits’, but that’s incredibly hard to quantify. You bring up an interesting point, however, about how loosely we can define ‘literature.’ In a way, there should be a Nobel Prize for Music, which apparently exists but isn’t supported by the Nobel Foundation because ‘music’ wasn’t one of the five fields that Alfred Nobel specified in his will should be awarded, and thus no one really cares about it. Expanding the scope of ‘literature’ to include Dylan could, should, and hopefully will open up other unconventional artists to be chosen in the future. It’s definitely a fascinating precedent to set and I’m excited to see how they treat it in the years to come…

At this point in this public conversation, a third person chimed in:

“Again protest or no protest Dylan’s lyrics are just unique. I used to read his songs like poems even before I started listening to him. They have inner rhythm and everything, musical pattern is just a bonus. My graduation Uni project was based on his book which included 130 pages of research in culturally significant wording in his texts. Lyrically anyone, including Waits, Cohen or dare I say it Bruce are far behind. I loved Cohen’s reaction to the news actually. He said and I quote, ‘To me [the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.’

And my final remarks on the matter:

The poetry argument is definitely intriguing, but I really believe his words suffer when they’re removed from their original musical contexts. But again, that just goes back to the debate regarding how we define literature…

There you have it! As you can see, my excessive verbosity is not just contained to this website – it infects my social media pages too (which you should follow here and here).

Now I’m going to listen to some Dylan…

FOOTNOTES

[1] I met this gal at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

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