Bob Dylan's name has been featuring on the list of potential Nobel Laureates for several years now. But in all seriousness, even his most ardent admirers probably didn't expect him to win the prize one day.
While waiting for the announcement of the Nobel for Literature yesterday, I glimpsed his name pop up in the Ladbrokes' list of probables, as it had done for the last few years, and had an eye-roll moment. The possibility of Dylan winning the world's most prestigious prize for literature appeared as remote to me as Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States.
The rest, as they say, is history.
My surprise, which quickly turned into disappointment, at this year's choice for the literature prize could only be compared to my delight in 2013, when it had gone to Alice Munro, the only short fiction writer to have won it. In the last two decades, the Nobel committee has got a reputation for choosing writers who are unknown, or relatively obscure, to Anglophone readers.
The Nobel really makes little difference to [Dylan's] existing acclaim, station in life or legacy in the world of music.
Had it not been for the prize, I wouldn't have encountered the life-altering poems of Swedish poet Tomas Transtrõmer or the shockingly perverse work of German writer Herta Müller. I was a young adult when Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska got the prize in 1996. Living in Calcutta, where access to her work was scarce, trying to teach my unaccustomed tongue to pronounce her name, I'd wondered for a moment if that was how European and American readers felt in 1913, when Rabindranath Tagore had won the prize.
Apart from recognising a lifetime's body of exceptional work, the Nobel tends to bring global recognition to less known writers, or to those like Munro and JM Coetzee, who have sought to only make themselves known by their writing, rather than by joining the race for literary success.
Dylan, as it happens, belongs to neither category. He's a phenomenon, an institution by himself, who has been bestowed with the Grammy, Oscar and inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Nobel really makes little difference to his existing acclaim, station in life or legacy in the world of music.
The trickier question, in the debate over his selection for the honour, is the status accorded to his work. Dylan's writerly output, so to speak, constitutes of a volume of autobiography and volumes of his songs. There are many champions of his "literary" genius, most notably British critic and scholar Christopher Ricks, who has extolled the merit of his lyrics. Comparing his lyrics to the best tradition of alliterative verse or metaphysical poetry, Ricks has made Dylan an important subject for academic investigations.
One of the members of the Swedish academy described Dylan as "the greatest living poet". In the Nobel announcement, he is praised for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". Long before popular literature became bread and butter for academics (serious literature now seems to be of as little interest within academia as outside of it) novelist Norman Mailer said, "If Dylan's a poet, I'm a basketball player."
Reacting to the news of Dylan's Nobel, Irvine Welsh, acclaimed author of Trainspotting, said:
I'm a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.— Irvine Welsh (@IrvineWelsh) October 13, 2016
Writer Salman Rushdie, who has been on the waiting list of the Nobel Prize for Literature for several years now, had only praise for Dylan, on the other hand.
From Orpheus to Faiz,song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition.Great choice. #Nobel— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) October 13, 2016
The best articulated response to the issue, I felt, came from novelist Hari Kunzru, who tweeted out this thread, citing several compelling objections to the Swedish Academy's decision to give the Nobel prize to Dylan.
Serious thread on why you're seeing writers disappointed by Dylan Nobel. It's not that we don't love Girl from the North Country 1/n— Hari Kunzru (@harikunzru) October 13, 2016
Like Kunzru, I'm a fan of Dylan, too, though more of his lyrics and music to be honest than of his singing voice, which has never sounded the most pleasing to my ear and has been dwindling over the years. I'm willing to overlook Dylan's extensive use of "so many other people's words, unattributed, into his works", as Kunzru pointed out; I'm more than thrilled by the revolutionary appeal of his lyrics; and I believe his music did have a profound effect on the history of ideas and emotions.
Without a doubt he is one of the icons of contemporary popular culture. But I have no qualms in saying this as well: Dylan's lyrics may be shining examples of musical genius, but they are inferior specimens of literary activity, certainly undeserving of as august an accolade as the Nobel. And The New York Times editorial spoke my heart when it said this:
Yes, Mr. Dylan is a brilliant lyricist. Yes, he has written a book of prose poetry and an autobiography. Yes, it is possible to analyze his lyrics as poetry. But Mr. Dylan's writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer.
The missed opportunity the NYT mentions also pertains to larger issues of the state of our contemporary literary culture. For the choice of Dylan for the Nobel Prize not only deprives a more deserving writer of the award but also perhaps does disservice to an independent publisher, who struggles to bring out their work. It is, as this article bemoans, a validation of the truth every serious reader hates to hear: people, these days, no longer care for reading, or at least for the kind that is difficult and challenging.
For those who solely depend on writing for their living, the Nobel money is bound to be life-changing from a practical perspective, too, apart from the recognition such an honour brings in its wake.
As Kunzru pointed out, the Nobel awarded to Belarusian journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich last year turned the fortunes of her publisher Fitzcarraldo. Apart from giving a huge boost to the sales of books and translation rights for the publisher, the prize brought $928,000 to the winner — even very successful writers seldom make this much money at a go. For those who solely depend on writing for their living, the Nobel money is bound to be life-changing from a practical perspective, too, apart from the recognition such an honour brings in its wake. And here I must mention, to put this argument into perspective, Dylan's net worth, which is estimated to be $180 million.
To liberal Americans, having to deal with the daily horror of Donald Trump, the news of Dylan's Nobel may be a welcome to boost their political morale; it would give them a reason to cheer in the midst of bleak days. But to many readers in the rest of the wide world, it will smack of tokenism, just as Barack Obama winning the Nobel Prize for Peace did.
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