“Sara Danius, a literary scholar and the permanent secretary of the 18-member Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, called Mr. Dylan ‘a great poet in the English-speaking tradition’ and compared him to Homer and Sappho, whose work was delivered orally. Asked if the decision to award the prize to a musician signaled a broadening in the definition of literature, Ms. Danius jokingly responded, ‘The times they are a changing, perhaps,’ referencing one of Mr. Dylan’s songs.”
— The New York Times
Homer, and Sappho.
Last week, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for having “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” I start out with this, because my fifth grade English teacher taught me that starting an expositional essay with humor is a popular technique, and this is the biggest joke I have encountered in a long time.
To me, the debate over whether Mr. Dylan is a poet or whether his work can be counted as literature is frankly irrelevant in determining whether he deserved this prize. Whether his lyrics could have been successful without his music, I don’t claim to know. What I do know, and what should matter, is that they ultimately were not treated or meant to be treated primarily as a form of literary expression.
Giving a literary award to a musician for the potential interpretation of his music as literature is absurd. The same logic would lead us to award a Grammy for Best Rap Song to John Ashberry because his poems could potentially have had great success as rap were they considered in the context of a certain beat.
Yes, of course, as is true with any music lyrics, it is possible to interpret Mr. Dylan’s words as literature. There are literary elements in music, as there also exist inherently musical elements to poetry and prose. These two are forever linked — song was used to refer to poems long before musical pieces, and even the word “lyric” stems from the instrument “lyre.” However, it is unfair to both writers and musicians to equate the two art forms. The way we engage with Mr. Dylan’s art is completely different than with traditional literature — it would be a disservice to both Mr. Dylan and to the art form of music for us to treat it as merely words on a page. The experience of listening to one of his songs is created by his music as a whole.
I hope people will not take my position to be conservative or elitist. In fact, my criticism is not that awarding a literary prize to a musician is too progressive. Rather, it’s completely regressive and backwards. The magic of written literature is that the music contained in it can be heard even without the backdrop of melody, without the pluck of a string or pressing of a key. We are capable of discussing rhythm, pace and flow in a literary work without a score or metronome. For me, this is part of the allure of the written word — that sound and sense can be expressed through ink and paper.
To me, perhaps the most disturbing thing about this year’s awarding is that it perpetuates the notion that art needs to be accessible to everyone to be meaningful. Why do we need “a broadening in the definition of literature?” This concern does not extend to the other Nobel Prizes. I assure you that I would understand very little about the nature of research done for the chemistry or physics prizes, and that’s fine.
Let me say, however, that I do not accept the seemingly ubiquitous argument that Mr. Dylan’s commercial success in comparison to writers is a reason he should not have won. Yes, it is true that the Nobel can be a financial boon for struggling artists whose forms of expression are not financially lucrative. However, as is true with any award, the winner should be decided on merits. My criticism of the awarding rests purely on theoretical grounds, not practical ones.
The Nobel Prize matters. It is a recognition of an individual or organization’s lasting impact on the world, yes. But it is also an acknowledgement that certain things — peace, literature, the sciences — are inherently important to our continued existence as human beings. When you begin to stretch the boundaries of one of these categories, it challenges the legitimacy of the field.
In awarding the prize to Mr. Dylan, the Nobel Committee took literature back centuries. Alfred Nobel wrote that the award was to be given to “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Apparently for the Swedish Academy that direction is backwards, and I will forever rue the year that literature was judged not to merit its own realm of existence.