Yesterday Bob Dylan, the beat folk musician who turned electric and helped make the ’60s the ’60s, won the Nobel Prize for literature. Dylan is the first musician ever to have won the award — and, not surprisingly, the decision to give one of literature’s great prizes to a rock singer immediately produced criticism. One writer said “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.”
Most of the criticism of the decision to give the Nobel Prize to Dylan focuses on whether lyrics can ever rise to the level of “literature.” It’s a kind of snooty argument that necessarily comes off as dismissive of songwriters, suggesting that poets and novelists labor over their craft, think big thoughts and wrestle with the big issues, and produce timeless works of literary art — while songwriters simply dash off a ditty and consult their rhyming dictionary as necessary. Still others argue that Dylan has received enough awards — he’s won a lot of Grammys, for example — and he doesn’t need the Nobel Prize. As one critic of the award put it, reading is declining, writers and poets are struggling for recognition, and “awarding the Nobel to a novelist or a poet is a way of affirming that fiction and poetry still matter, that they are crucial human endeavors worthy of international recognition.”
Kind of sad, isn’t it? Years after Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth, and Hemingway, people are arguing that the Nobel Prize is what is needed to show that writing poetry and prose matters? And, in a way, that argument is self-defeating, isn’t it? After all, the Nobel Prizes in literature that have been awarded pre-Dylan – and you can see the list here — haven’t exactly prevented the worldwide decline in reading and recognition of writers and poets that some people are bemoaning.
The notion that the Nobel Prize somehow legitimizes literature seems pretty silly to me. Nobel Prizes always appear to be highly politicized, and the concept of honoring writers and poets through the selection of one award winner doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Nobel Prize for literature in 2011, for example, was given to Tomas Transtromer “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” How does the award to Tomas Transtromer affirm the value of authors and poets who write in different genres and different styles?
Words are words, and the Nobel Prize for literature recognizes that words have power. Whether the words appear in a book, a poem, or a recorded song, the key point is whether those words are being used in a memorable, beautiful way to send a lasting message to the reader — or the listener. No one who has listened to Bob Dylan’s music has failed to appreciate the lyrics, which undeniably have their own unique, poetic power. Dylan’s writing — like, apparently, the writing of Tomas Transtromer — makes us think about words and their message. I think he’s a fitting recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature.