Bob Dylan is, without question, a musical genius. He's a legend, a hero, an absolute icon. But a Nobel laureate in literature?
When the Swedish Academy announced this morning that Dylan had won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, I couldn’t help but think of a bit of writing wisdom that’s trickled down from Aristotle. The contemporary version of this little chestnut goes something like this: The ending of a story should be both surprising and inevitable.
And it certainly was surprising and inevitable. Surprising because, while he’s written numerous books, Bob Dylan is primarily a songwriter and performer, not a poet, playwright, journalist, or fiction writer, and inevitable because, as an absolute titan in the music world who’s long been beloved for his lyrics, odds-makers have had Dylan on their radar for the prize for years.
But the choice has left me feeling cold, and I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that way. In a world in which literary acclaim is scant and awards few and far between, Dylan’s recognition with the greatest global prize in literature strikes me as somewhat pointless. It’s not that I think he’s unworthy, exactly; it’s just that the opportunity cost of giving Dylan the prize is too high.
Beyond an argument over whether Dylan’s music can be considered literature or not (for what it’s worth, I think it can), it's odd that the Swedish Academy would recognize a global celebrity over, say, the Syrian poet Adonis, whose verse breaks from the formal conventions of Arabic poetry to present a wholly singular sensibility, or Japan’s Haruki Murakami, whose novels, stories, and essays so deftly depict and replicate what it feels like to live in a world that often seems long on information but short on answers.
In recognizing Dylan, the hush-hush Swedish Academy seems to have taken a cue from their colleagues at the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the group tasked with awarding the Nobel Peace Prize. They’ve not shied away from controversy. Giving the Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973; Arafat, Rabin, and Peres in 1994; and to a newly inaugurated Barack Obama in 2009 was certainly controversial, but it drummed up plenty of publicity. People still argue the relative merits of those decisions.
By contrast, the Swedes have traditionally made what appear to be more level-headed picks. This year, though, in picking a wealthy, globally famous celebrity as the literature laureate, the Swedish Academy has inadvertently sidestepped one of the prize’s most welcome outcomes: that a writer of literature, known or unknown, will find a broader readership. In the U.S. publishing market, only about two percent of literature available in a typical bookstore is translated from another language, so recognition with the Nobel and the subsequent translations that follow the award announcement can dramatically change the trajectory of careers. Will Dylan’s life dramatically change for having won the prize? Will new audiences find his music once he’s stepped up to that podium in Stockholm? Both are doubtful.
Think of last year’s laureate: would any of us have been truly aware of Svetlana Alexievich’s brilliant and brutal oral histories of the Afghan war and the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl had she not won the Nobel Prize? Would we have such easy access to translations of Wisława Szymborska, Mario Vargas Llosa, or Herta Müller?
In his 2010 interview with President Obama, Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner asked the President about a performance Dylan had given that February at the White House. Describing the show, the President said that Dylan had skipped the sound check, performed a beautiful rendition of “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and then stepped off the stage to shake the President’s hand before scooting on out of there. “That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right?” Obama told Wenner. “You don't want him to be all cheesin' and grinnin' with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat.”
It’s an amusing anecdote, for sure, but the implications are bothersome. If Dylan’s Nobel Prize is another accolade for which he’s probably too cool, then it strikes me as a double shame for writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, A.S. Byatt, and Don Delillo, Philip Roth, who’ve long been believed to be Nobel possibilities. They’ll just have to wait in the wings once more, only this time, it’ll be in deference to a rock star.