There are some statements one never expects to read:
“Scientists have confirmed the existence of a large number of living Dinosaurs occupying vast tracts of present-day North Korea.”
“With the completion of the transition of energy production to renewable resources worldwide, the planet’s last petroleum refinery ceased operations today.”
What about these words, spun from the most fanciful depths of some writer’s wildest imaginings:
“The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 was awarded to Bob Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’.”
It’s true, though. Bob gets The Prize.
The mind reels. It’s a great day. In a world replete with hatred, killing, insanity, cruelty, stupidity, greed and pain, it’s a vote for the human spirit. A voice that has sung, wailed, growled, even crooned about love and hate, war and peace, governments and nations and loneliness, terror and joy.
Bob’s shaped my entire musical life, from my earliest teen-age years as — yes — a folkie. I didn’t know that those songs by Peter, Paul and Mary had been written by a young man named Dylan, but I found out soon enough. Bob and I have gone on together — he writing songs I’ve played and sung to this day.
It occurs to me that I know a lot more of Bob Dylan’s words by heart than I do of any other writer who’s won or been considered for the Nobel Prize, despite a lifetime of reading.
Still, it’s a notable departure for the Committee to declare that a songwriter’s work is “literature.” It opens a floodgate that can never be fully cranked closed. On one hand, it’s acknowledgment that human literature is more than prose and poetry. On the other, despite all the pleasure and pain and angst tens of millions have felt singing or listening to a Dylan song, almost none of us have ever simply sat down and read the lyrics of one of his songs. It’s a different category of art. Should Bob be there on the stage in Stockholm, or are the Grammys and the Pulitzer and the Halls of Fame and other awards sufficient?
I might be making too much of this. After all, the Nobel Prize for literature is a rather silly thing, when you boil it all down. The great writers who have left the scene without receiving it are legion. The number of questionable or outright disastrous selections the committee has made over the years is large. Still, to make such a significant break with what constitutes “the canon” is stunning.
There’s also some dramatic irony at work. Here in America, we like to complain that the Committee is deeply averse to enshrining American writers (I expect to get comments from those of you in other countries and languages who feel equally ignored). Despite the fact that our many excellent writers are widely known and admired throughout the world, the most recent American writer they honored was Toni Morrison, 13 years ago.
Is this a cunning ploy by the Committee to simply dodge the entire question of having to name yet another American writer of note by selecting instead our foremost songwriter?
If the Committee is, indeed, determined to thumb their noses at the current generation of American writers who almost certainly merit the distinction, as the selection of Mr. Dylan may suggest, Philip Roth (now 83), Thomas Pynchon (79), Don Delillo (79) and Richard Wilbur (95) are just a few of the generation of literati of significant accomplishment who will probably go to the great beyond without an invitation to Stockholm. I trust there are writers in every language, the literature of innumerable cultures, who will do the same. It’s an imperfect world, after all, and no one has been a more articulate poet of its flaws and idiocies than Bob Dylan.
Don’t get me wrong. The naming of a new Laureate from Ukraine, France or China (to name only three recent homelands of literature Laureates) does those of us who read only our own language a great service. It brings attention to voices previously unknown, spurring English (and other) translations of their work, inspiring our libraries to put them in the collection. I think especially of Czeslaw Milosz, unknown to me until he was named Laureate in 1980.
As a child of the 60s, I’ve grown up not only with the music, but attitudes and points of view that Dylan’s work has galvanized. He has, certainly, changed the world. But the fiction I read has been world-changing, too, and with but one global award of this nature, the loss of an opportunity for a hitherto unknown voice to rise above the melee is substantial.
Still, I’m excited by the fact that it’s Bob. It’s unexpected (by me) in a startling way. My songbook is full of Bob Dylan songs. My first Dylan song? It’s such a standard now that it seems trite to simply print lyrics that tens of millions of people know. But they’re words that made a difference once, sung on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington. Let’s all sing.
How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Thanks, Bob. Congratulations.
© Brad Nixon 2016. “Blowin’ in the Wind © 1990 Special Rider Music and Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate!
What do you think of the Committee’s choice? Perfect or flawed? A egregious violation of “literature” or a change whose time has come?
And, what writer in your own language should receive the Nobel? I’d love to have your comments, please, from everywhere in the world. We’ll all learn something.