The disapproving hubbub over Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize has been relentless and pretty predictable. First it was because he won and then that he did not immediately acknowledge winning. Then when he acknowledged it, he was not humble enough. And then he said he would not make it to the acceptance, which raised a cacophony of contempt. He claims he has a previous commitment, and up rises the hue and cry. I do not want to make excuses for him, but maybe he promised a grandchild a special day on that date or maybe he has a surgical procedure scheduled or maybe that is the one day a year he reserves for bathing in the blood of virgins to maintain his vigor so that he can continue touring at age 75. I have no idea, and neither do you.
Now the outrage is renewed at him sending a speech for someone else to read while Patti Smith plays a Bob Dylan song. In short, Dylan has been universally declared to be horribly, monstrously, inexcusably insufficient in his gratitude. Reports (rumors, really) have maintained that Dylan’s friend and manager, Jeff Rosen, lobbied for Dylan to receive the prize. I do not know if that is true or even how one lobbies for a prize in literature, but, if true, could it mean Dylan himself desired the prize he now eschews? The ingrate!
All in all, the castigation of Dylan’s ostensible ineptitude as a groveler seems odd. As Barack Obama wisely observed when Dylan did not swoon obsequiously at receiving the medal of freedom, “That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat.” Just right. If Dylan fawned over Obama, his knee-jerk detractors would have called him a sellout or a toady. In related news, Dylan recently chose to skip the White House reception for this year’s American winners of the Nobel Prize.
All this hubbub, all the hue and cry, all the castigation is finally pedestrian, which is why I have not previously weighed in on the topic. Dylan, as always, is playing it, playing us, for all he can. Nonetheless, I now have a few observations about the reaction and the prize itself.
One of my favorite responses to Dylan winning the Nobel was from members of PEN America, the venerable organization for writers and writing professionals. Some, mostly not women and not people of color, praised the decision. Others, mostly women and people of color, were against. Almost all seemed supremely silly if not flat-out supercilious. The reactions for ranged from “hey, yeah!” to “it’s a bigger tent now.” The reactions against ranged from “songs ain’t lit” to a unilateral declaration that the award should have gone to a different Bob–i.e. Marley, who died in 1981. (Imagine the Nobel Prize committee freed to offer the prize posthumously. Instead of tracing Dylan’s art to Homer and Sappho, the prize could simply go this year to Homer and next year to Sappho. The Nobel Peace Prize could go one year to Jesus of Nazareth and another year to Caesar Augustus . . . for ushering in the long Pax Romana, of course.)
Now, as to why Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. The essence of why is captured in the reaction of the PEN members. The whole notion of awarding a singular prize for achievement to an individual–of recognizing one among billions–is inherently absurd. This one individual is the best literary artist in the world since last year and until next year. Whatever inherent value the Nobel has, it does not lie in including this one and thereby excluding all the others. We can see this reality in the committee’s occasional propensity to send messages.
For instance, why did Winston Churchill win the Nobel for Literature in 1953? The official reason is “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” I am not aware of any extensive and serious literary studies of his biographical writing, whatever the historical importance. (Before you object, such exist for Dylan’s songs.) Churchill’s oratory certainly was soaring and important during the Second World War as it inspired Britain and thereby helped secure Europe, but is it “literary” in the way we usually mean that term? Clearly the committee meant to honor a man the members admired and felt gratitude for.
Or last year’s prize, which went to a Belarusian journalist, Svetlana Alexievich, who captures oral histories–not the regular novelist, poet, or (if we must) playwright who best fits our regular view of the literary. Bigger tent, indeed.
I do not want to disparage the literary contributions of Churchill, Alexievich, or any other author. In fact, I am all for an expansive view of the literary. I find the concept of genre generally problematic since the best artists seek to explode such confinements. Hence Bob Dylan and the song as literature. And Dylan is not even the first songwriter to win the prize, by the way.
Dylan is a wildly influential and widely admired songwriter. And, yes, that influence is greatly augmented by the relentless promotional machine of Columbia records, and, yes, he is ridiculously remunerated for his literary prowess. Let us not kid ourselves, though. The myth that the only worthy artist is an impoverished artist eschewing wealth and fame for the pure pursuit of the ideal was born of the Romantic era and was never true. For every John Keats there was a Lord Byron and his circle. It would be the rare artist who does not dream of and strive for reputation and financial success. Furthermore, when recent Nobels have gone to relatively obscure authors, the hue and cry was about their relative lack of influence. So which is it? Who is the Goldilocks Nobel winner who stands perfectly between success and saintly obscurity? Sully Prudhomme?
Dylan’s lyrics exalt what we think of as literature. This claim is true for any number of artists working in a variety of forms. The Nobel Prize undoes itself because it excludes multitudes of the deserving and even the superior. It excludes you, and it excludes me. Maybe neither of us should be much surprised at our exclusion, but it excludes everyone else as well–except the winners.
Now, if I have to read one more half-baked piece about how someone’s favorite artist deserves the Nobel in Literature far more than that ancient croaker Bob Dylan, I may have to stoop to Twitter to complain!
Full disclosure: As I was completing the preparation of this blogpost, Stephen King published an article in Rolling Stone with a similar argument. I would not be so churlish as to accuse him of supernaturally anticipating my essay and producing his own preemptively plagiarized offering even though such a plot element would fit with the general themes of his ouvre. Nor do I think that I would be unduly boasting if I pointed out that my essay is far superior in every possible way to his.