Bob Dylan Should Not Have the Nobel Prize.
Translated into English, the will of Alfred Nobel, founder of the annual prizes that bear his name describes the literature prize as being:
“in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”
There is some debate as to what exactly “ideal” refers to, with some indications that it has been mistranslated. But no such controversy exists about the first words- In the field of literature.
Bob Dylan, popular as he may be, does not operate in the field of literature. Authors do. Perhaps straight poets, (that is to say, not lyricists) belong there as well. But the best written songs in human history would not, by their quality or even cultural impact indicate a transformation into literature, no more so than the life’s work of a great dancer translates into literature. If that were so, Mikhail Baryshnikov would be entitled to a Nobel Prize in literature. If you want to describe Gary Kasparov’s chess playing as poetry in motion, and couple that with his activism, you could give him one too, I suppose.
It’s true. Within the writing world itself, the definition of what qualifies as “literature” is somewhat fluid. It’s one of the bigger arguments within our field, in fact. But it is our field. That is, those of us who are authors and writers. Singer/Songwriters have their fields, and no matter how much we might insist that our words are, when read properly, music to the ears, we’re never going to be able to crash those gates. Why? Because music is not our field. Nor are we intending to compose music when we write our novels and short stories and such.
I won’t argue the quality of Dylan’s lyrics. Arguing the quality, the impact, the uniqueness of any art form is to me a fool’s errand. What moves me may move millions of others, or it may move only 20 other people on Earth. We can quantify sales, longevity, impact, influence, but in the end we cannot truly quantify quality. My own view on Dylan, or yours for that matter is irrelevant. This is about the encroachment of someone who is, (like it or not Dylan fans) a rock star that is just as commercial as any of the others into an aspect of the arts he has no business occupying. Maybe not by his own choice; he didn’t give himself the award. But so much of Dylan’s position, persona, alleged mysticism and quasi-prophet status has been achieved by his semi-passive riding upon the adulate waves of his fans; adding the Nobel Committee to that ilk only seems to cheapen the prize, not elevate the recipient.
Call Dylan’s lyrics brilliant, if you like. Call them perfect. Call them art, if they speak to you on a deep enough level. Exquisite art. Art on the scale of Da Vinci and Beethoven, even. It’s not literature, and giving him what has been considered for over a century to be the highest honor in literature smacks just a bit of populism to me.
This isn’t elitism on my part. In fact I have read very little material written by Nobel Laureates for Literature over the years. But as obscure as I am, I do feel a degree of solidarity with fellow authors of all stripes, and I get the feeling our toes have been stepped on here.
In the end, it’s nobody’s business but the Swedes, I guess. They have their platform and I have mine, such as it is.
Bob Dylan should not have the Nobel Prize for Literature.
- Posted in: Writing