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Friday, October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

A bit of a bomb rocked the culture and academic worlds yesterday when the Swedish Academy announced that Bob Dylan, of all people, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is perhaps the most controversial choice they have ever made--usually it's to some Albanian poet who no one has heard of and people say, "How about giving it to someone I actually have read?" This time they gave it to the most famous recipient ever (Dylan is certainly far more famous than Hemingway was when he won, for example) and some people don't know what to think.

First of all, is what Dylan does literature? The simple answer is that if that's what the Swedish Academy thinks, then the answer is yes. But to us folks who can argue this endlessly, what exactly is literature? Dictionary definitions all seem to point to "printed matter," and those who decry this decision say that Dylan is a musician who makes music, not a poet. He himself didn't dare call himself a poet. So some say he is unqualified, and if the Academy wants to make a special category for music, let them. But others I've been reading broaden the definition of literature. After all, the works of Homer and Virgil pre-date mass printing, as does Chaucer and Shakespeare, for that matter.There works were meant to be heard, whether sung, recited, or acted.

The second major argument against Dylan is that since Americans only win this award about every twenty years, a lot more deserving people got passed over. The usual suspects, like Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon and the like will probably be dead the next time they give it to an American. There is some poignancy in this argument, but the Swedish Academy shouldn't get caught up in playing this game. It's true that Americans don't win this award but once a generation, but it they think Dylan deserves it, so be it. The worst argument I heard was that Dylan doesn't need the prize money. The Nobel Prize is not Queen for a Day, and shouldn't be based on financial need.

How you feel about this is likely to be based on your level of fandom. I love Bob Dylan, and dare think he is a poet, whose lyrics can be read like poetry, and who has shaped the voice of America like few others in the last fifty years. If you hate Dylan, then you cry foul, coming up with all sorts of arguments against it, some specious, like the money thing, and others more cogent, like that he's not what is usually considered a writer. But the Academy seems to be more interested in the big picture, and are not concerned with always having to dredge up some Latvian novelist out of obscurity.

Dylan, as a lyricist, is unparalleled in the rock music medium, perhaps in any music medium. Sure, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer--they were all great, but I don't think any of them came up with lines like these

"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 doing our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, tempting 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"

Dwight Garner, in today's New York Times, posits that Dylan deserves to be considered alongside Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson as unique American voices. A course taught by a Harvard professor, simply called "Bob Dylan," points out his antecedents in Joyce, Yeats, and the Greeks and Romans. Certainly "Desolation Row" is full of literary allusions:

"Cinderella, she seems so easy, "It takes one to know one, " she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he's moaning. "You Belong to Me I Believe"
And someone says, "You're in the wrong place, my friend, you'd better leave"
And the only sound that's left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row"

Here, in one stanza, is a reference to a fairy tale, American pop culture, and Shakespeare. His lyrics are flooded with literary allusions, such as the dig at "Mr. Jones" in "Ballad of a Thin Man:"

"You’ve been with the professors
 And they’ve all liked your looks
 With great lawyers you have
 Discussed lepers and crooks
 You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
 You’re very well read
 It’s well known"

He has also given us some great one-liners, such as "You don't need a weatherman to know when the wind blows," or "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there."

What the Academy seems to be saying, and I wholeheartedly agree with, is that no matter how one expresses words, it's literature. I remember having a discussion back in college about whether Ingmar Bergman deserved a Nobel Prize. I thought so, and still think the right filmmaker could win one. There's many ways to tell a story, and Dylan told many of them brilliantly.

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