In an age of Newsthump and Dailymash its hard not to think the Nobel literature prize committee wasn't essentially "trolling" the world with news that, having ignored the cream of American literature for decades, it was finally giving its laureate to that... (song) writer Bob Dylan.
Nobel has history here of course, it has honoured Sartre and Churchill. Literature in Nobel terms means writing, in whatever format, and I suspect the Dylan laureate is partly to recognise that. It gives the sense that for a certain generation (mostly in their fifties and sixties now - are the judges younger?) - that a good attempt at songwriting in 1962-7 is the be all and end all of popular song, and firmly puts literature in its place - as this is not about the best "writing" but about something else entirely. Maybe the Nobel judges want to meet the enigmatic Dylan? Though, God knows why.
Dylan is, don't get me wrong, sui generis, and in many ways, as well as those wonderful sixties tunes, it is the longevity of his relevance that matters. It's a massive category error giving him this prize however. He needed lyrical help in his mid-seventies purple period, has been identified time and again as a great magpie when it comes to the actual words he uses, picking (and stealing) from history, and it's wonderfully quixotic of Nobel to give a prize for writing to someone whose last two albums have been cover versions of standards, rather than his own songs.
I should probably write about my own Dylan experience some day - but one can't help but think that this award is just Nobel accepting its own absurdity, looking to get some headlines, and cooking a snook at the American literary firmament which it has never acknowledged: no Ashbery, no Roth, no DeLillo. But oh, Dylan!
Not quite never acknowledged:
Toni Morrison (1993)
Joseph Brodsky (1987)
Czeslaw Milosz (1980)
Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978)
Saul Bellow (1976)
John Steinbeck (1962)
Ernest Hemingway (1954)
William Faulkner (1949)
T. S. Eliot (1948)
Pearl S Buck (1938)
Eugene O'Neill (1936)
Sinclair Lewis (1930)
plus 351 additional Nobels in the other four fields. Still, God only knows what's going on with this Dylan award.
I should have probably qualified that. But Milosz and Brodsky hardly count. The great swathe of post war American writers is hardly acknowledged was what I meant to say, which makes the Dylan award particularly quixotic
I only assembled the list because I myself had no real idea how many Americans had been awarded Nobel prizes (in Literature or anything else). A researcher at the university where I work is getting a Nobel in science this year. There's no public debate about his award.
Dylan is a strange choice and I'm not really sure how I feel about it. I know that when I first heard Dylan's music, I was aware that he was doing something that seemed new, that his lyrics were different than what I was used to hearing, but when I heard the news of the award, my first response was "You've got to be kidding. What have they been smoking over in Stockholm?" Perhaps Dylan's best lyrics aspire towards something poetic, and perhaps Dylan has tapped into some rarely-explored aspects of 20th-century American culture. But I'm not sure. Maybe someone decided that they'd missed a chance with Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller and Alan Ginsberg so they settled on Dylan, who still happens to be alive. I don't know. The Nobel committee itself admits that it has never had a strong idea what the prize in literature is supposed to recognize.
It's given the award to Churchill (for history writing), Sartre (for philosophy) and last year Svetlana Alexievich (for oral history), so perhaps it's part of the same sort of thing. It's had a particular blindspot on American writing since the sixties I think - though partly as a rebalancing away from English language writing. The main thing is that people think it means that another American won't get it for years now, so unless Roth or DeLillo live to a hundred they'll never get it. Thing is Ginsberg, Kerouac etc would never have been in contention with the judges back then.
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