Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rolling stone (sorry) for the last few days will be aware that Bob Dylan’s list of accolades as a songwriter now includes a Nobel Prize in Literature. Such unexpected news throws up a number of questions: can music ever be literary? What makes Dylan’s writing worthy of such an honour? Is the decision really as refreshing and surprising as it first seems?
As a lover of Dylan’s music, I will admit to being somewhat biased in this argument. Who can hear the lyrics to ‘I Want You’, with its rapidly changing and complex imagery that challenges the listener to keep up with Dylan’s command of metaphor, without hearing only poetry, set to music? Listening to the catalogue of characters in Dylan’s oeuvre, from jokers and princesses, queens and advisers, businessmen and women in homemade dresses, all existing alongside allusions as far reaching as Dante, the Bible and daily 20th century American life, it’s hard not to be tempted to view him as contemporary society’s answer to Shakespeare.
Of course, this view assumes that Dylan’s output is even viable to be compared to Shakespeare in both its medium as song, and its role within our culture. One argument against this stance centers on its commercial and populist elements. Many would dismiss those supporting the Nobel judges’ decision as merely fans, or consumers whose appreciation of Dylan’s work rests on its commercial success. However, just because a work is popular and fueled in part by money doesn’t make it less worthy of being called art—just look at the plays of Shakespeare himself, who shrewdly catered to the cultural demands of his time in his writing, while simultaneously creating breath-taking art that has surely influenced every Nobel literature prize-winner ever honoured.
So that’s one argument against Dylan-as-laureate ruled out. What, then, of critics who cite his medium as sufficient cause to discredit his writing? Those who, like Irvine Welch, who tweeted in response to the news, “If you’re a ‘music’ fan, look it up in the dictionary. Then ‘literature’. Then compare and contrast”, suggest that music can never be literary? Perhaps they should consider the undeniable link between literature and music that has existed since ancient times, a link which has seen popular music influenced contemporary literature across many eras and corners of the globe. It is with this in mind that we should view the Nobel board’s comment on Dylan, as “having created new poetic expression within the great American song tradition.”
The tradition is one with deep roots which can be traced back to colonial times, with the first ‘native American literature’—that is to say, literature created in America, rather than transmitted to the New World from Europe—consisting of ballads often written as elegies and sung at funerals of colonial pioneers. As these lyrical narratives became well known, they were published in “broadsides”, newspapers of the time, creating writing which can be seen as the start point of all ensuing American literature. The way these narratives outlined entire lives and outlandish situations can be compared to Dylan songs like ‘Tangled Up in Blue’; American ballad writers’ later fondness for celebrating the lives of outlaws in narratives like ‘Billy Broke Locks’ can be viewed as a precursor to the narrative of ‘Hurricane’, or to the sentiment in ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’, that ‘to live outside the law you must be honest’. Here we can see a trajectory in which Dylan adds to an existing poetic tradition.
On the other hand, it is painfully obvious that, on another level, the decision to award Dylan such a prestigious prize is in no way as ground-breaking or inclusive as the above might suggest: in terms of racial and sexual politics, by praising the Nobel board’s decision, we are simply celebrating someone who has been disproportionally celebrated for the last two millennia: a white man. Natalie Kon-Yu points out that of 155 Nobel literature prize winners, only 14 have been women, and fewer still women of colour. This is indisputably, and sickeningly, a sign of the rigidly patriarchal society which has bred former winners, and in which we continue to live. If this article argues for the inclusion of music within the category of literature, why not honour Joan Baez (above), or Joni Mitchell? And if these women can be dismissed as less influential than Dylan, perhaps we should acknowledge the inherent sexism of our society which has impacted on that judgement.
To summarise, the Nobel board’s decision to honour Dylan is complex, neither to be celebrated blindly or viewed entirely with cynicism. It is true that he has created new expressions, created art which, with its metaphors, allusions and sheer poetry, is as literary as it comes. But while we accept these as valid criteria for a Nobel literature prize-winner, we must also examine the historical and present-day injustices and the short-sightedness of the Nobel judges that have made it so that now, in 2016, the prize could not have been awarded to someone other than a white man for exactly the same reasons.