The Case For and Against Bob Dylan's Nobel Win

Maybe it’s been long enough that we can talk about Bob Dylan’s Nobel win with clear heads?

Before we start, I’m going to tell you this: I’m not a Bob Dylan fan. When I set out to write this, I felt one way about it. By the time I finished, I felt differently.

Perhaps you can join me. Open your mind a bit, maybe have a drink or seven, and really consider the possibilities. Let’s look at the various arguments for and against Dylan’s win for the Nobel Prize In Literature.

The Controversy, In Brief

In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize In Literature. For those who don’t know, Bob Dylan is primarily a songwriter, and the award was in recognition of his contributions to literature via his songwriting.

For those who didn't know Bob Dylan was a songwriter, I'm sorry you were trapped in that cave/underground bunker/cryosleep chamber/whatever, and I welcome you to the present. My number one piece of advice to you is to avoid the food known as "scones" if you're in the U.S.

Dylan's win is a controversy because other Nobel In Literature winners are fiction writers, poets, and non-fiction writers. Dylan is known as a musician.

Does Bob Dylan write? Yes. Would most, when asked who Bob Dylan is, respond, “He’s a writer who…”? Probably not.

That, in brief, is the kerfuffle.

Are Songs Literature?

It’s the first question that we have to answer. Are songs “literature?”

Those who say yes look to the dictionary definition of literature:

...written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.

A definition that certainly accommodates songs. The works are written. They are of superior or lasting artistic merit (more on this later).

Pro-Dylan advocates are also quick to cite old ways of doing things, saying that old-timey poets would recite epic poems aloud without ever writing them down. This practice is at the root of literature, therefore, Bob Dylan’s writings easily qualify.

There are also some compelling arguments against Dylan’s songs being called literature.

Yes, the dictionary definition tells us what literature WAS. But what IS it? When we think of literature today, what do we think of?

Because the thing is, “literature” is a term that, like many others, has changed, and the version in common use is different from the traditional definition. For example, what if I told you that your vegetarian diet involved eating meat? After all, “meat” was once defined as “solid food.” “Furniture” once meant “equipment, supplies, or provisions.” I think if I stopped at a Subway to get “furniture” for our road trip, you’d wonder what the hell I was thinking.

As Judith Herman puts it:

People sometimes tell you you’re misusing a word and cite the Latin origin as proof. Don’t fall for the etymological fallacy. What a word means depends not on its origin, but on how speakers of a language understand it.

Have you gone into a record store and seen a "rock" section, an "R&B" section, and a “literature” section? If you take a literature course at a college, would you be a little surprised to pick up a stack of CD’s as your texts?

If we buy into that logic, “literature” probably doesn’t include songs.

There’s another problem with the traditional definition as well: if lyrics are literature...what ISN’T literature?

Those who like the old-timey, strict definition of “literature” have to acknowledge that this definition also includes “leaflets and other printed matter used to advertise products or give advice.” Which means a brochure about visiting Reptile Gardens in South Dakota is, in fact, literature. I feel confident in saying that most of us, even those of us who like our definitions staunch and official, are not fans of saying that the operation manual for a television is literature. Or of saying that “Did somebody say McDonald’s?” is in the same category, is the same sort of thing, as Old Man And The Sea.

If literature is all of these things, the definition is almost worthless. The purpose of categorization is the useful sorting of things, and when a definition moves towards being all-encompassing, it’s not all that useful. It’s how we end up arguing whether the game of darts is a sport, which is how someone ends up with a dart in their eye.

Judgment:

Here’s what Dylan said about his own work:

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life's mundane matters. "Who are the best musicians for these songs?" "Am I recording in the right studio?" "Is this song in the right key?" Some things never change, even in 400 years. Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, "Are my songs literature?"

Great. Thanks for the help, Bob.

I’m of the opinion that both sides are kind of right on this one. Yep, Dylan’s work falls within most definitions of “literature,” including that of the Nobel committee. BUT, the official definition of “literature” is divorced from its common meaning. So, while those who cite the definition are correct, those who were surprised about Dylan's win, from a categorization standpoint, are also correct. 

No winner on this one.

Wait. Is This About High Versus Low Art?

What if  the Nobel committee is wrong? What if, 25 years from now, we look back on this as a bad choice?

I don’t think so.

The primary argument regards the form, not the execution. I don’t see a lot of people arguing that Bob Dylan sucks. I see a lot of people arguing that this is like ordering pancakes and getting waffles. We don’t have to hate waffles in order to be disappointed by their arrival if what we were expecting was pancakes. Likewise, preferring pancakes doesn’t mean one dislikes waffles or is questioning their value.

The argument about music being low art seems like a straw man argument to me, and an easy way to dismiss detractors. I don’t see a lot of people arguing that music is less than. I see the arguments being about music being a different beast.

Judgment

This one doesn’t favor Dylan. I’m sure some see Dylan’s win as validation of a form, but there are lots of ways in which musicians, especially Bob Dylan, have been recognized for their work. And I don’t think Dylan is in a category of people who are accused of making dumb music. This doesn’t strike me as a blow in the debate over high versus low art.

We're quickly becoming a world where sweeping generalizations about high and low art are hard to make. TV shows were once pretty firmly in the low category, but that's changed. Comic books were once seen as being for kids, but Maus won the Pulitzer. Music has long been seen as above TV and comics, especially singer/songwriter music of the type Dylan does.

If the Nobel committee wanted to make a point about high and low art, eh, too little, too late.

Was Dylan The Most Deserving? Who Else Was In The Running?

Lots of great writers. That’s the thing. Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Jon Fosse, Ko Un, and Syrian poet Adonis were all likely candidates.

Reading these names, it’s hard to say that Dylan is the most deserving. It’s impossible to say, really, because this is a subjective thing. I have a really tough time saying that Dylan, up against these others, is the most deserving of an award in literature. He’s had a huge impact. He’s inspired a lot of people. But so have these others. And if I have my choice of books with the word “chronicle” in the title, I’ll take Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle over Dylan’s Chronicles any day.

Judgment 

I have to favor Dylan on this one simply because this category is totally subjective, and therefore I can’t really say he doesn’t deserve it. I might not be his biggest fan, but that’s no more a compelling argument than some OTHER yahoo writing a column about how Joyce Carol Oates sucks.

No matter what the award, there’s always going to be something that you, as a consumer, think is more deserving. Best Picture in 1993 was Unforgiven. Not Jurassic Park. Not Schindler’s List. Not Demolition Man. The thing is, it’s not really up to us, which brings us to…

Waitaminute. It’s THEIR Damn Award!

I have to give the Nobel committee this: It’s their goddamn award to do with as they wish. If they find someone they think is deserving, and if that person checks all the boxes, then what argument can be mounted, really? Because the Nobel can’t be given to the commonly-acknowledged best person in literature. It’s given to someone who the committee thinks is the best fit for their award in a given year. It’s probably a bit arrogant of us common scumbags to say we know better who deserves the award. Indeed, I can’t say I’ve read the works of all the likely nominees, and even those I have, I didn’t experience in the context of deciding which was most deserving of an award.

I’m not one who often says, “Trust the professionals.” But in this case, I kinda trust the professionals.

Judgment 

This one’s definitely in favor of Dylan. It’s their award, they gave it to the person they thought deserved it.

Waitaminute. IS It Their Damn Award?

In the late 1970’s, one of the guidelines added to the Nobel In Literature was bringing attention to unknown masters:

A growing number within the Academy wanted to call attention to important but unnoticed writers and literatures, thus giving the world audience masterpieces they would otherwise miss, and at the same time, giving an important writer due attention.

This portion is a bit damning when applied to Dylan, or most musicians of note for that matter.

A lot of songs looked to me like the worst of SNL sketches: a premise stated over and over again as opposed to a series of expansions on a premise.

The issue here is that we’ve taken an award usually reserved for writers and given it to a well-known musician, which means the committee has fallen short when it comes to highlighting an unknown artist.

Musicians are just better known than writers. Indeed, if I named the winners of the Grammy for Album of the Year from the last ten years, I’d be willing to bet most, if not all of the names would be quite familiar to just about everybody. But what about the name Tomas Tranströmer? J.M.G. Le Clézio? Are these names anywhere near the level of Adele? Beyoncé? Taylor Swift?

Bob Dylan is a known quantity to most. Although it’s unusual for him to win this award, it’s highly unlikely that anyone has been introduced to Dylan as a result of his win. Conversely, when it comes to Svetlana Alexievich, this award will make a difference.

When you’ve got one or two potential spotlights in the world of books, it seems wasteful to point one at the already well-lit Dylan.

Judgment

On this one, I go against Dylan. It’s not the responsibility of the Nobel Prize to to be the memory for the world of literature, making sure nothing important falls through the cracks. Or, at least, it wasn’t until they put that standard on themselves.

The committee fell a little short of their own ideals on this one, and that’s gotta go against Dylan.

Is Dylan’s Writing All That Good?

In college I had a poetry professor who had us do an assignment: take a song you like, take the lyrics, and break them up into lines and stanzas so they look like poems.

This assignment opened my eyes to something: lots of the power in songs comes from their musical qualities.

Exposed, there naked on the page, the lyrics of some of my favorites were not nearly as strong. You could see how often word choice was sacrificed in the name of rhyme. How few songs contain a narrative, really.

A lot of songs looked to me like the worst of SNL sketches: a premise stated over and over again as opposed to a series of expansions on a premise.

I checked Dylan’s The Lyrics 1961-2012 out from the library, and I flipped through it.

Some of the stuff was pretty good:

Does it take much of a man to see his whole life go down
To look up on the world from a hole in the ground
To wait for your future like a horse that’s gone lame
To lie in the gutter and die with no name?

And some of it...if a poetry student brought this to me, I would suggest a bit of workshopping:

I went into a restaurant
Lookin’ for the cook
I told them I was the editor
Of a famous etiquette book
The waitress he was handsome
He wore a powder blue cape
I ordered some suzette, I said
“Could you please make that crepe”

When I read the lyrics to a lot of these songs, I felt there was something missing when their performance was removed.

Indeed, critic Michiko Kakutani felt the same way on reading Dylan’s lyrics:

Simply reading a song, we miss the ways in which the words interact with the music—how, say, the sardonic lyrics to many of the songs on ''Highway 61 Revisited'' counterpoint the upbeat, even exuberant tracks—and we are deprived, as well, of the point of view supplied by Mr. Dylan's raw, insistent inflections and distinctive phrasings. Numbers like ''Lay, Lady, Lay,'' ''Blowin' in the Wind'' and even ''Like a Rolling Stone'' feel considerably more trite as prose poems than as songs, and many of Mr. Dylan's weaker efforts —''New Pony,'' say, or ''Emotionally Yours''—simply collapse into pretentious posturing when separated from their propulsive tracks, which at least helped to endow them with a modicum of conviction on the records.

All of this leaves this writer asking the question, can a song really be separated from the music? Once you’ve heard “Blowin’ In The Wind” can you read the lyrics without having the meter, the rhythm, and the instrumentation creep in? Can you really separate the performance from the content?

How can we evaluate Dylan's work as written words when this separation is so difficult?

Judgment

I’ve set myself up to judge the work of Bob Dylan here, thumbs up or thumbs down. Smart, Pete. Real smart.

Here’s what I’ll say: I think the judgment by the committee was a lie. If I honestly believed that anyone on the committee had the experience of reading Dylan’s work without hearing the songs, if I thought that there was any way in hell the committee wasn’t remembering the rhythm and sonic qualities of the work while they were reading through the lyrics, I’d feel differently.

What I want to say is that I think it’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate Dylan’s words from his music. Once you’ve rung that bell, you can’t unring it. Once you've heard the song, it becomes impossible to simply read it.

I know someone who works on an awards committee for books, and they are asked to read everything, not to do audiobooks, because an audiobook can be a very different experience depending on the narrator and production quality. In order to judge books equally, one should experience them the same way.

And so, I feel the same way about literature. Apples to apples comparison involves judging them the same way. Which, in this case, seems impossible.

I’m going thumbs-down on this one. Not because I think Dylan’s work is bad. Because I think it’s got the unfair advantage of having an inseparable performance component. It's impossible to see Dylan's work as words on a page. While it's possible to say Dylan's songs are very good, I don't think it's possible, at this point, to say whether his writing is good when separated from the music.

Have We Opened A Door Best Left Closed?

There’s an argument as to whether opening the door to music is a good decision, in general. Is Smashmouth the next Nobel winner? How about Stallone for the Rocky screenplay? Where does it end?

However, having just made the slippery slope argument, I can’t say I find it too compelling. Sure, it could happen. But it won’t. I don’t think we’ve seen the last novelist win the Nobel prize for literature. I honestly don’t believe the prize will now be dominated by songwriters.

And the other thing is, I don’t know that opening the field is a bad thing. Indeed, I think if someone asked about the idea of widening the field in a general sense, we’d all be cool with it. If someone said, “Would you be in favor of the Nobel committee opening the field of Literature in an effort to increase the pool of potential winners in some interesting ways?” I think a lot of people would be in favor of that.

Judgment

Pro Bobby. The slippery slope isn’t as slippery as we think in most cases. I have a tough time imagining we’ll look back on this decision and say, “And that’s the precedent that allowed Kim Kardashian to win a Nobel Prize In Literature.”

Dylan Doesn’t Deserve It Because He Doesn’t Give A Shit

When the win was announced, it took Dylan a bit longer than normal to respond. We made a big deal out of this. We live in a world where a non-response to a world event by a celebrity can be interpreted as a negative thing, and Dylan’s slow public reaction was taken as another sign of his arrogance. But, his speech suggests that he wasn’t making a statement through not making a statement. He was simply shocked. Which is understandable. I think it’s fair to say most of the world, whether they agreed with the announcement or not, was quite shocked.

And, to my reckoning, there’s nothing that requires a Nobel winner to be a nice guy. It’s not really about that.

Dylan has since said he’s planning to officially accept the award, and he will fulfill the requirement of providing a lecture, even if he does so by tape. Which sounds like another dick move, but this is apparently quite common and was the way Alice Munro did it in 2013. You can call it a dick move, and thereby say Alice Munro also made a dick move, but I’m not going there. 

Perhaps we were a little hard on Dylan, a usually-standoffish person, for being exactly who he is.

Judgment

I’m in Dylan’s corner on this one. As someone who didn’t campaign for the award, he owes us nothing. 

Should Large Impact Be A Deciding Factor?

There’s a phrase that comes up over and over again when you read up on the way the Nobel committees make decisions: the greatest benefit to mankind.

There are a couple ways of interpreting this. One is to say that the work is of the highest quality and has really changed the lives of those touched by it. The other is to say that the work has made the largest impact on the most people. We could say that eye transplants have provided the greatest benefit to mankind, taking those who can’t see and allowing them to. But we could also say that eyeglasses, which have smaller impact case-by-case, have made a much bigger dent in the world.

If I look at the potential nominees, I have to admit that Bob Dylan has probably made the largest world impact. But if impact or quantity is so important, then the “greatest” album every year was the one that the most people bought. Or the "greatest" song of the year would be the one most people heard, which means the best song of 2010 was Katy Perry’s “California Gurls.”

Wait, sorry. That’s not the greatest song of 2010. It’s the greatest piece of literature from 2010.

The greatest movies of 2010, in this case, include Alice in Wonderland and Shrek Forever After. In fact, 7 of the top 10 greatest films that year were for children.

If one views “greatest” in a quantitative way, we get some interesting results when we look at the arts.

However, “greatest benefit” may be a qualitative thing, in which case Dylan is tougher to argue for.

I was wounded early,
and early I learned
that wounds made me.

Lines from Adonis, one of the other likely candidates. How about some Murakami?

Why do people have to be this lonely? What's the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?

While less widespread, the work of these authors has an undeniable quality and potential impact. I think one can make a very compelling argument for the experience of reading a novel being of deeper, more lasting impact than hearing a song on the radio.

Judgment

Again, I have to go with Dylan.

The thing is, if we look at it both ways, "greatest benefit" being quantitative OR qualitative, Dylan can potentially win either way. While I can argue that Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a writer of greater quality, I can't mount as strong a quantitative argument for him. While I can argue that Adonis' work is the work of a Syrian poet and therefore an important voice in the context of current events, I can't argue that he's touched the same number of people as Dylan.

The qualitative argument will always be there, and it's completely subjective and winnable by any writer. The quantitative argument is a bit simpler, and I'm afraid there's only one outcome in this case. 

Is This Genuine, Or Is This Drumming Up Interest?

I have to say, it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve seen this many people care this much about the winner of the Nobel In Literature, a likelihood of which I’m certain the committee was aware when they made their choice.

It’s not hard to imagine the committee making this decision as a way of increasing interest in the Nobel In Literature. The question before us today, is that a problem?

While some might see this as naked advertisement, I can see how it’s a benefit. Next year’s award will be watched more carefully. Candidates and likely winners will be examined more closely. Everyone will go in with the feeling that the unexpected could happen.

Which means that the winner will get a little more ink and a little more notice. Which is part of the point. If next year’s winner is relatively unknown, Bob Dylan winning this year will only help. Sure, the stories will be half about Dylan winning the previous year, but we’ll still be a bit more interested.

Judgment 

Hate to say it, but Bob Dylan takes this one. I would love to fault the committee for going this route, but I have to admit I haven’t really put a lot of thought into the Nobel up to now. If it’s a dastardly plan, it succeeded.

But What If We’re Wrong?

After reading Chuck Klosterman’s book But What If We’re Wrong, whenever a situation arises, I like to ask myself, “What if we ARE wrong?”

What if the Nobel committee is wrong? What if, 25 years from now, we look back on this as a bad choice? Is it a huge deal?

Eh. Not really. Was Patrick White the “right” choice in 1973? I don’t know, and the more I look it over, I have to admit that I don’t particularly care. As I look through the list of past winners, I have to be honest and say that all the names, except for Dylan, fall into one of two categories: “Makes sense” and “Never heard of ‘em.” Dylan is the ONLY name that falls into a third category for me, a contested entry. Which makes me feel like the decision seems a lot more important now than it actually is, in reality.

Judgment

Another one for Dylan. Even if it’s wrong in retrospect, we'll get by.

Final Judgment

I told you at the beginning that I’m not a Dylan fan. I’m still not. I don’t know what to say about it. Fight me?

I have to admit that my lack of love for Dylan probably has more to do with my feelings on his Nobel win than his work does. My personal taste was more offended than anything, and I was doing things backwards. I don’t care for Dylan’s stuff, and there must be a reason. A calculable, measurable reason. I love Murakami, I don’t love Dylan, therefore Dylan shouldn’t win something over Murakami, especially in the realm of literature.

It’s a silly way to think about things.

When you get down to it, Dylan’s made an undeniable impact on the world. He’s inspired a lot of people, writers included. Holy hell, how many books begin with a Dylan epigraph? How many writers, artists, and regular folks have been inspired and impacted by a Bob Dylan song here and there? Immeasurable.

There’s a decent case against giving the award to a musician. But that case won’t really prove itself for another 20 years or so as most of the arguments are based on what the decision means for the future of the award and awards like it, and some of the bigger problems have to do with whether some of the snubbed authors will have lasting impact regardless of whether or not they win a Nobel. All of which remains to be seen.

While there’s a decent case against giving the award to a musician, there’s not as good a case against giving the award to Bob Dylan. When we get specific, it’s different. Bob Dylan is not typical of the person we think of as a hit-making musician. He’s written a massive amount of good stuff.

For now, I have to concede that I’m on Dylan’s side. But I sure as shit hope to see Joyce Carol Oates nominated for a Grammy next year.

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Column by Peter Derk

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado.  He's a master of library science (which is a real thing) and considers himself a master of picking out the one functional treadmill in any gymnasium (which is not a real thing).  Buy him a drink sometime and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public library's restroom.

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Comments

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words April 7, 2017 - 8:31am

wow - a very thorough going over - much thanks for all the points of view I hadn't heard during the initial brouhaha of this announcement.

As a Gen Xers, my upbringing makes me loathe anything Baby Boomers hold as an essential part of their identity: hence, I don't like Dylan (which has nothing at all to do with the man or his music). 

All in all, he may have deserved it (you certainly make excellent arguments), he may not. In the end, it might be why I'm more excited about the Booker Prize long list than the Nobel Laureate in Literature.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson April 7, 2017 - 8:54am

A good write-up. And thorough.