In honouring Dylan, the Nobel Prize judges have made a category error

Jen Webb, University of Canberra

In 1920, Rudyard Kipling (Nobel Prize in Literature 1907), published The Conundrum of the Workshops. This poem about review culture features the Devil as “first, most dread” critic who responds to human creative outputs with: “it’s pretty, but is it art?”, a review that hurls the makers into confusion, rivalry and anguish. What could be worse, for an artist, than to discover that what you were making is not art after all?

Social media has taken over the Devil’s role as “most dread” reviewer, and all night the twitterverse has been alive with commentators expressing their outrage at, or rejoicing over, the decision of the Nobel Prize Committee to award the Literature prize to musician and songwriter Bob Dylan. As journalist and writer Jason Diamond tweeted: “My timeline is like watching a ‘Dylan deserved the Nobel’ vs ‘Dylan didn’t deserve the Nobel’ ping pong match.”

Much of this ping-pong commentary operates less according to the rules of evidence and argument than according to the rules of quarrel; of personal taste; of anger directed at established privilege; and of teasing Boomer nostalgia.

Billy Collins, one of the most popular poets in America, supports Dylan’s win.
David Shankbone/Flickr, CC BY

On the Affirmative team we have not-a-poet Salman Rushdie tweeting that “From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition”.

And there’s actual poet Billy Collins, who affirms the prize because Dylan’s lyrics are “in the 2 percent club of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page”.

From the team for the Negative, there’s editor Chloe Angyal: “Literally zero women were awarded Nobels this year. Maybe someone can write a poignant, gravelly, somewhat atonal folk song about that”.

Or the writer Shay Stewart Bouley who tweeted about “peak white man music.” Or music journalist Everett True, who pokes fun at the committee: “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature is like your third-rate English teacher at school, trying to look ‘cool’.”

Not all commentators have relied on personal taste or social politics: several observe something that struck me too: there seems to have been a category error in the awarding of this prize.

Novelist Jodi Picoult tweets: “I’m happy for Bob Dylan. #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?” From novelist Joanne Harris: “Is this the first time that a back catalogue of song lyrics has been judged eligible for a literary prize?” More bluntly, from novelist Jeff VanderMeer:


Is it possible that this award was determined according to the sort of logic set out by The Logician in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros: The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded only to those who have created literature. Bob Dylan was awarded the Prize. Therefore Dylan is a creator of literature?

Perhaps. I am very interested in the relationship between song lyrics and poetry, and it is a close relationship – the first poems were almost certainly sung – but centuries ago, the two creative modes parted company. They operate now according to a different logic, depend on different traditions, and are located within very different ecosystems. This is not a question of relative quality; it is a question of categories.

So, whether I admire Dylan’s body of work or not, whether I am a fan or not, I think the Nobel Prize Committee has made a category mistake. They awarded the prize to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

Why not Patti Smith?
Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters

And I don’t argue with this at all. But does that mean his output is “work in the field of literature”? Not for my money. Dylan is a musician; he has been well recognised for his contributions to music, and more broadly to cultural life.

When Swedish Academy member Per Wastberg gushes that “He is probably the greatest living poet”, I can only say that Mr Wastberg should not be let anywhere near a literature prize.

And – taking my own place on the team for the Negative – if it must go to a songwriter, why Dylan? Did he need the money more than, say, Patti Smith or Joni Mitchell or Aretha Franklin? Has he not had enough public attention? And were there really no writers – no poets, novelists, essayists, no people who have spent their lives in the field of literature – considered Nobel-worthy?

It’s very good to see that literature can still spark passion and outpourings of personal commentary; but I can’t help but read this decision as one that was discourteous to members of the field of literature, dismissive of women’s achievements, and fundamentally kinda nostalgic. Let me leave the last (tongue-in-cheek) word to writer Leah Kaminsky: “No woman wins any Nobel prize this year. Oh the times they ain’t a changin’.”

The Conversation

Jen Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Why Bob Dylan deserves his Nobel prize in literature

Richard Brown, University of Leeds

To the surprise of many, Bob Dylan has become the first singer-songwriter to win the Nobel prize in literature.

As the news broke, I was in the middle of teaching James Joyce to some undergraduates – an author who did not win the Nobel, but is often considered a pinnacle of high literature. Many wouldn’t look to compare these two artists, not least those already protesting that Dylan’s win cheapens the award. But in many ways, they’re alike. I’m thrilled. Dylan’s win has been a slow train coming.


Meanwhile, Dylan will have been gearing up for another gig – much as he has been doing for more than half a century. On his Nobel-winning night he’s set to play Las Vegas, so it’s good to hear that he’s won a prize based on the reasonable judgement of a committee of high-minded enlightened experts and not just on the throw of the dice.

In terms of stamina alone, he’s a worthy winner but – more than that – it is the quality and the generosity of the achievement that is a pleasure to recognise. It’s great for his millions of fans around the world, old and young, great for the prize and great for the idea that popular music and serious literature aren’t necessarily so different after all.

Members of the media react to the news that Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel prize in literature.
Jonas Ekstromer/EPA

The world of Dylan’s most distinctive lyrics is probably more Las Vegas than it is Stockholm – his songs are more often populated with gamblers than writers and academics. But his stature as the poet of rock and roll has never really been much in doubt. The significant presence of literary culture in what Variety magazine once mocked as the “deliberately iggerunt” vernacular language of his songs has increasingly been revealed.

The seriousness of the literary as well as musical achievement has gradually gained more and more respect and leading academic critics, such as Christopher Ricks, have been keen to recognise and to try to account for it. His autobiographical Chronicles are packed with references to and anecdotes about writers.

References and anecdotes are also something that filled Joyce’s pages. Curiously, Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records at the time Dylan was beginning his recording career, gave him a first-edition copy of Joyce’s masterwork Ulysses. Dylan professed that “he couldn’t make hide nor hair of it”. He wanted the poet Archibald MacLeish to explain it to him but didn’t get around to asking in the end.

Readers of Joyce as well as Dylan might recognise that as just the kind of thing that happens to Joyce’s hero Leopold Bloom. Ulysses is full of snatches of songs and music – and if it had been written a few years later Bob Dylan would have been in there for sure.

Dylan performing in 1984.

What a lucky man to own a first edition of such a famous text – now one of the most prized and valuable of all collectable rare and vintage books (one sold in 2009 for £275,000) as well as one that is most valued by serious literary critics and readers all over the world. Not a bad insurance policy just in case the recording career didn’t take off.

But of course it did take off – and how. It’s hard to imagine a more prominent living figure in American culture – perhaps even world culture – than Bob Dylan, or one whose work combines a more richly poetic and surreal artistry in its vision of the contemporary world, a more iconoclastic sense of social justice, more notes of personal intimacy or such a dry and acute sense of humour. There is nobody better capable of provoking his huge and amazingly loyal audience with new challenges, at the same time as endearing himself to them all the more.

I hope the buskers and street singers in the subways and on the street corners around the world dust off their favourite Dylan standards and sing them out loud. It’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone with or without a guitar or harmonica who hasn’t tried to strum some Dylan chords or mimic that unmistakeable voice at some point in their lives – just to try to answer that great Dylan anthem question: “How does it feel?

How does it feel for Dylan to win the Nobel? Let’s hope he tells us in the acceptance speech – or in song.

The Conversation

Richard Brown, Reader in Modern Literature, University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: are Bob Dylan’s songs ‘Literature’?

David McCooey, Deakin University

Bob Dylan has won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. The media has reported on this surprising choice by asking musicians, poets, and writers if Dylan’s songs are indeed “literature”. Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting (1993), made it clear on Twitter that he didn’t think they were:

If you’re a ‘music’ fan, look it up in the dictionary. Then ‘literature’. Then compare and contrast.

So are song lyrics a type of literature or, more specifically, poetry? The English poet Glyn Maxwell thinks not. In On Poetry (2011), he writes that “Songs are strung upon sounds, poems upon silence”. Inhabiting silence makes poetry the harder and more important art form. Music, Maxwell writes, makes lyrics seem better than when they appear on the whiteness of the page.

But many don’t share Maxwell’s position. The critic Christopher Ricks has long championed Dylan’s song lyrics as poetry. In Dylan’s Vision of Sin (2004), he places Dylan’s songs in a poetic tradition that includes Tennyson and Donne.

Bob Dylan: he belongs to the tradition of blues, country and Tin Pan Alley.
Ki Price/Reuters

Both Maxwell and Ricks, however, ignore an ancient link between poetry and music. Ancient Greek poetry, such as the epics of Homer or the lyric poems of Sappho, were accompanied by a stringed musical instrument called the lyre. It is from the lyre that we get the words “lyric” and “lyrics”.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Swedish Academy drew attention to this ancient link between poetry and music when announcing its decision. The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, pointed out that Homer and Sappho were “meant to be performed, often together with [musical] instruments”.

There are more recent examples, of course. English lute songs of the 16th century set poetry to music. In the 19th century, Schubert and other composers wrote lieder (German “art songs”), which also set poetry to music.

But how accurate is it to compare Dylan with Sappho and composers of art song? Dylan belongs to the tradition of blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley (the commercial American songwriters of the first half of the 20th century). He was central in the rise of “Americana”, a mix of folk and popular American musical forms that have little to do with “elite” musical forms such as opera and lieder.

Bob Dylan took his stage name from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Wikimedia commons

Dylan has avoided taking on the mantle of “poet”. He once described himself as a “song ’n’ dance man”. Nevertheless, he famously took the name of a Welsh poet (Dylan Thomas) for his pseudonym. (Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman.) In addition, his songs, as Ricks and others have pointed out, take in numerous literary references, as seen in his many often-playful allusions to the Bible. And while his breakthrough in the early 1960s was as a “folk” singer, Dylan quickly became famous for the complexity and “poetic” quality of his lyrics.

So, do Dylan’s lyrics survive as poetry in the “silence” of the page? You can find out for yourself by reading the 960 pages of Dylan’s The Lyrics: 1961-2012 (2014). And you can compare his work with those of other song writers – such as Lou Reed, PJ Harvey, and Paul McCartney – whose lyrics have been published in book form.

Certainly, many people would argue that the lyrics of Dylan’s classic songs from the 1960s do survive as poetry. The strange, surreal, and often funny lyrics from Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) arguably represent his peak as a lyricist.

Visions of Johanna, from Blonde on Blonde, is a good example of the “literary” Dylan.

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

Visions of Johanna contains some of Dylan’s most celebrated lyrics, and you can see why. It clearly works on the page.

But should we make the printed page the standard of what counts as “literature”? Bob Dylan’s songs are multimedia things. Lyrics are to songs what scripts are to plays or films. We can read scripts for enjoyment, and to better understand the productions they come from. But to pretend that the play or film is somehow secondary is clearly a mistake. Equally, we can’t ignore the music and performances that accompany Dylan’s song lyrics.

Dylan’s Nobel Prize shows up what the Swedish Academy has so far ignored in their award system: film, popular music, and the emerging forms of digital storytelling.
Perhaps what this Nobel tells us more than anything is that “literature” or “poetry” are categories of our own making. To move beyond the page seems long overdue.

The Conversation

David McCooey, Professor of Writing and Literature, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

No, Bob Dylan isn’t the first lyricist to win the Nobel

Alex Lubet, University of Minnesota

There’s been a great deal of excitement over Bob Dylan winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s rare for artists who have achieved widespread, mainstream popularity to win. And although Nobels often go to Americans, the last literature prize to go to one was Toni Morrison in 1993. Furthermore, according to The New York Times, “It is the first time the honor has gone to a musician.”

But as Bob Dylan might croon, “the Times they are mistaken.”

A Bengali literary giant who probably wrote even more songs preceded Dylan’s win by over a century. Rabindranath Tagore, a wildly talented Indian poet, painter and musician, took the prize in 1913.

The first musician (and first non-European) to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore possessed an artistry – and lasting influence – that mirrored Dylan’s.

Bengal’s own renaissance man

Tagore was born in 1861 into a wealthy family and was a lifelong resident of Bengal, the East Indian state whose capital is Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Born before the invention of film, Tagore was a keen observer of India’s emergence into the modern age; much of his work was influenced by new media and other cultures.

Like Dylan, Tagore was largely self-taught. And both were associated with nonviolent social change. Tagore was a supporter of Indian independence and a friend of Mahatma Gandhi, while Dylan penned much of the soundtrack for the 1960s protest movement. Each was a multitalented artist: writer, musician, visual artist and film composer. (Dylan is also a filmmaker.)

The Nobel website states that Tagore, though he wrote in many genres, was principally a poet who published more than 50 volumes of verse, as well as plays, short stories and novels. Tagore’s music isn’t mentioned until the last sentence, which says that the artist “also left … songs for which he wrote the music himself,” as if this much-loved body of work was no more than an afterthought.

But with over 2,000 songs to his name, Tagore’s output of music alone is extremely impressive. Many continue to be used in films, while three of his songs were chosen as national anthems by India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, an unparalleled achievement.

The Bengali national anthem, ‘Amar Sonar Bangla.’

Today, Tagore’s significance as a songwriter is undisputed. A YouTube search for Tagore’s songs, using the search term “Rabindra Sangeet” (Bengali for “Tagore songs”), yields about 234,000 hits.

Although Tagore was – and remains – a musical icon in India, this aspect of his work hasn’t been recognized in the West. Perhaps for this reason, music seems not to have had much or any influence on the 1913 Nobel committee, as judged by the presentation speech by committee chair Harald Hjärne. In fact, the word “music” is never used in the prize announcement. It is notable, however, that Hjärne says the work of Tagore’s that “especially arrested the attention of the selecting critics is the 1912 poetry collection ‘Gitanjali: Song Offerings.’”

Dylan: All about the songs

It may be that the Nobel organization’s downplaying of Tagore’s significance as a musician is part and parcel of the same thinking that has long delayed Dylan’s receiving the prize: uneasiness over subsuming song into the category of literature.

It’s rumored that Dylan was first nominated in 1996. If true, it means that Nobel committees have been wrestling with the idea of honoring this extraordinary lyricist for two decades. Rolling Stone called Dylan’s win “easily the most controversial award since they gave it to the guy who wrote ‘Lord of the Flies,’ which was controversial only because it came next after the immensely popular 1982 prize for Gabriel García Márquez.”

Unlike Tagore’s Nobel announcement, in which his songs were an afterthought, the presentation announcing Dylan’s award made it clear that aside from a handful of other literary contributions this prize is all about his music. And therein lies the controversy, with some saying he shouldn’t have won – that being a pop culture icon who wrote songs disqualifies him.

But like many great literary figures, Dylan is a man of letters; his songs abound with the names of those who came before him, whether it’s Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot in “Desolation Row” or James Joyce in “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.”

Why not celebrate Bob by being like Bob and reading something unfamiliar, great and historically important? Tagore’s “Gitanjali,” his most famous collection of poems, is available in the poet’s own English translation, with an introduction by William Butler Yeats (who won his own Nobel in literature in 1923). And YouTube is a great repository for some of Tagore’s most celebrated songs (search for “Rabindra Sangeet”).

Many music lovers have long hoped that the parameters of literature might be writ a bit larger to include song. While Dylan’s win is certainly an affirmation, remembering that he’s not the first can only pave the way for more musicians to win in years to come.

The Conversation

Alex Lubet, Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Music, University of Minnesota

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.