Why Bob Dylan Deserves The Nobel Prize In Literature
NEW DELHI: Bob Dylan has achieved yet another controversial feat, having won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016. The announcement sparked breaking news headlines, and brought with it a debate on whether Dylan -- the talented song writer/musician that he may be -- deserved literature’s highest honours.
My Facebook newsfeed was flooded with mixed reactions, with several people expressing disappointment. The literature enthusiast within them, they said, was saddened that the prize went to someone like Dylan, when more deserving candidates -- “actual writers” -- were in the fray. An article that has been shared by a large number of my acquaintances goes as far as comparing Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize to Donald Trump winning the upcoming presidential elections. Titled “A world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates Trump for president”, the writer Tim Stanley argues that “If the Nobel Committees can give a peace prize to Henry Kissinger then it can give a literature prize to a man who hasn’t written any literature.” Ouch.
“This is not a question of taste. Bob Dylan is a great folk artist, maybe the greatest alive. But the Nobel is supposed to be awarded not on the basis of what the public likes (if it were, Doris Lessing wouldn’t have won it) but on ability matched by idealism. Dylan has both, but his body of work falls far short of that produced by past winners: Yeats, Gide, O’Neill, Solzhenitsyn etc. The scale of their output and the thematic density of their texts outstrips Dylan by light years. He is a dim star strumming a guitar; they are suns around which we orbit. We are lucky enough to live among them today,” the article continues. “And if popularising the prize is the aim, then why not Leonard Cohen or Paul McCartney? Why not Debbie Harry, who crazy folk think invented rap?” Stanley argues.
This is probably a point several people agree with: that there are others -- writers specifically -- more deserving. But that criticism falls short, because even though Dylan’s form of writing may not be in the format of a novel (after all, he didn’t win for Tarantula, his famously indecipherable blown-off novel), it is writing after all. And in this form of writing -- song-writing, to be precise -- Dylan isn’t just a dim star strumming a guitar, he’s the sun around which several other songwriters orbit.
As an article in the Rolling Stone points out, the best argument for Dylan's Nobel Prize comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1850 essay "Shakespeare; or the Poet," from the book Representative Men. "Shakespeare, in common with his comrades, esteemed the mass of old plays, waste stock, in which any experiment could be freely tried. Had the prestige which hedges about a modern tragedy existed, nothing could have been done. The rude warm blood of the living England circulated in the play, as in street-ballads."
Shakespeare, during his active years, didn’t fit the typical definition of a “writer” either. He didn’t publish his plays, heck, he didn’t even keep written copies. His plays catered to an audience -- to a live format that was quickly becoming a national passion, but with a mass appeal. Shakespeare’s words acquired significance when they were performed, and not when they were written. And as soon as they were performed, he quickly moved on…
This, in a nutshell, explains Dylan’s significance. Think of your favourite lines from any of Dylan’s songs. Is it “How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a man?” from the 1962 track “Blowing In The Wind”? Or is it “Come senators, congressmen /Please heed the call/ Don't stand in the doorway/ Don't block up the hall/ For he that gets hurt/ Will be he who has stalled/ There's a battle outside and it is ragin'/ It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls/ For the times they are a-changin'” from the iconic 1963 “Times They Are A-Changin’”?
Or the very relevant, “Come you masters of war /You that build all the guns/ You that build the death planes/ You that build all the bombs/ You that hide behind walls/ You that hide behind desks/ I just want you to know/ I can see through your masks” from “Masters Of War.”
The point I’m trying to make is that no matter what lyrics you think of, you’ll hear Dylan’s distinct voice and the song in your head whilst humming the words that make the song.
And this is essential. To say that Dylan doesn’t deserve the award because there are better “writers” out there -- such as Haruki Murakami who everyone thought would be a shoo-in this year -- is a huge disservice to understanding a term as broad, complex and rich as the word “Literature.” Murakami may be the best in his form of the discipline (itself an arguable point -- as is the term “best” by definition), but when it comes to songwriting in the great American folk tradition -- there is no bigger “sun around which we orbit” than Dylan.
In that tradition -- for which he won -- sentence by sentence, line by line, verse by verse, Dylan’s body of work is worthy of the highest praise and honours. Congratulations Bob. You truly deserve this one.