My Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature

I’m not there, I’m gone
—-Bob Dylan, I’m Not There

I should start out by saying that I am second to no one in my admiration for Bob Dylan and his songwriting skills. I’ve written a three-part series on him starting here and listed him as one of the three greatest songwriters here. So it would be easy to assume that were I on the Nobel committee he would have easily gotten my vote.

Well, not so fast. For one thing, I confess to being somewhat of a purist. (Although, that said, not so rigidly orthodox that I would not accept the Nobel for blogging, should they open up that long overlooked category.) 😂

So when I hear the word ‘literature’ I think Hemingway, Steinbeck, Morrison, Dickinson, Ezra Pound, August Wilson, Flannery O’Connor. To me, literature is and always has been novel, short story, novella, play or poem. And so while Dylan’s lyrics are often profound and filled with wisdom, they are still songs.

Now some people have been defenders of this particular award and some have been detractors. I saw a tweet from a writer named Irvine Walsh who said, “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

I’m sorry, who were you again? See this is what happens when the people in that nice home he’s in let him near a computer. And how exactly are you a Dylan fan?

Salman Rushdie thinks it’s great while Jodi Picoult tweeted, “I’m happy for Bob Dylan. But does mean I can win a Grammy?” Tee-hee.

The other extreme in this controversy are professors who teach Dylan and who are practically orgasmic over this. “See I told you? This validates my whole fucking career,” they seem to shout from the ramparts. Take a pill.

Me? I’m that guy in between. I spoke to my friend and fellow music lover/amateur musicologist Bill the other night. He agreed with me. Great songwriter? Beyond any shadow of a doubt. But is it, strictly speaking, literature?

An interesting take on this was in a statement from one of those aforementioned professors. He seemed to somewhat contradict himself. On the one hand he said that Dylan’s lyrics were up there with some of the Greek classicists. On the other hand, he said it works best if you hear Dylan’s voice. Ok, Jack, that’s called a fucking song!

You know who could give a shit less about this one way or the other? Bob Dylan. I read just the other day on the Consequence of Sound blog that he’s not even returning the Nobel Committee’s phone calls and emails. They’re not even sure if he’ll show up!

This doesn’t entirely surprise me. I have been following this guy for years and read and listened to a lot of his interviews. I’m fairly certain he thinks that prizes are arbitrary and that no one thing is better as compared with another. Plus, as he’s said, he’s not the messiah and got really tired of being considered that. How does this prize help?

Dylan was performing at the Desert Trip festival when the news came out. For an encore, he decided to do the Sinatra standard “Why Try to Change Me Now?” Good question. Apparently he also played the guitar that night for the first time in four years. The eagle-eyed press found this somehow significant. Dylan goes electric. Again!

Press conference. San Francisco. 1965:
Q: Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?
Dylan: Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know.

As an article in the LA Times stated, “He has pointedly directed admirers away from focusing time and attention on his music, insisting it would be far more valuable to study the works of those who came before and influenced him. It’s his tacit reminder of his oft-cited realization that we all stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Dylan, in 2004, said, “If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to.” And I think that Dylan is savvy enough to know that if he hadn’t gotten this award, it would in no way, shape or form have diminished him either as an artist or in his impact on society. (For the record, Dylan is by far the most-quoted person by justices in Supreme Court decisions.)

And so if I had been on the Nobel committee and knew the wind was blowing in Dylan’s direction would I have voted for him? Probably not. I would likely have lobbied my fellow members to create a songwriting category and be done with it. Why not? Who says it has to be limited to certain categories? The prizes are named for the guy who invented dynamite. Blow things up once in a while.

And now that this particular genie is out of the bottle, will the acolytes of other songwriters not clamor for them to be admitted? Why not Paul Simon? Lennon/McCartney? Joni Mitchell? But why not then Jay Z, Eminem or for that matter, The Beastie Boys? Are then not, in a sense, street poets? I think they are. After all, did Shakespeare not start out as entertainment for the masses?

And so, back to the question of whether or not Dylan would have gotten my vote. Now if I had voted ‘No’ and the decision was ‘Yes.’ I would have been happily overruled. Does that make sense? Probably not, but you know, fuck it. I’m not that hung up on it.

BTW, I discount anything Rolling Stone says about this. Jann Wenner has for years pathetically worshiped at Dylan’s feet when that was clearly not what he wanted. In any interview with him, they forgot he was a human being and treated him like some sort of a god. Great though he may be, he puts his pants on over his head like the rest of us.

Now, those of you who haven’t yet fallen asleep or slipped into a coma might well ask the following question:

If the panel had been, say, nine members and it was 4-4 and I knew I were to cast the deciding ballot how would I have voted?

Well, all I can say to that is this:

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
But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

 

13 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature

  1. “For the record, Dylan is by far the most-quoted person by justices in Supreme Court decisions.”

    Wow, so incredible. I had no idea how quoted Dylan was in the legal community. Really interesting stuff.

    I would have voted yes for Bob Dylan to win the Noble prize. Song writers change people’s lives. I know that to be true of John Lennon for me.

    Really loved your honest post.

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  2. Yeah, I don’t know if Dylan, Lennon or any artist directly changed my life wherein I said, “I will now do this instead of what I was doing.” But I would say that they both to some extent changed the way I think which indirectly affected my life.

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  3. Pretty much agree here. The inherent issue with him being awarded it, is that his lyrics are profound but only truly work in tandem with the music. If they were published as a volume, they simply wouldn’t work. Whether that should exclude him from the prize could be a loooong debate… Great post 😉

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    1. And now that I think about it, there’s one other important factor – his voice. So it’s that combination of lyrics (profound, scathing, absurd, angry), music, and that incredible voice that makes the whole thing work. Not saying I wouldn’t read him on the page. But, e.g., Subterranean Homesick Blues or Highway 61 Revisited just need that whole package IMHO.

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  4. If this had happened organically, without a committee interceding; if the year’s Nobel laureate were handed down by some congregation of stars and light, placed in everyone’s minds: if it were a phenomenon, there would be fewer arguments if there were any arguments at all.

    Because they didn’t give the award to a songwriter; they gave it to Bob Dylan. And if another artist comes along in a medium in any way dependent upon words–a graphic novelist, a blogger, a filmmaker–and achieves what Dylan has achieved, he or she would deserve a Nobel Prize as well.

    His songs are written down. Homer’s may not have been, but he is literature. They are meant to be heard, but so were the works of Aristophanes and Aeschylus and Euripides and Sophocles. And they are writers, their work is literature. His voice has transcended his medium and has influenced law and literature and the visual arts and culture and society at large whether it was transmitted to ears or eyes, whether it was transmitted by his own voice, his own hand or not at all by him, like Socrates and Diogenes, and they are literature.

    Most plays are literature, whether they are closet dramas, like Faust, or meant for a stage, like Shakespeare and many others: it is all literature.

    We don’t decide what becomes literature, what becomes canonical: that’s the beauty of literature. Time will prove this decision correct. Just as time elevated Shakespeare and Dickinson, erased Boethius and Averroes. The apotheosis of Bob Dylan has not been completed or achieved with this award, but predicted. Say what you will: the proof is blowin’ in the wind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair argument. But to your point, “we don’t decide what becomes literature.” With this award, we do just that. All that said, it doesn’t take too much to push me in that direction. I am certainly not diametrically opposed to it, that’s for sure. But I haven’t yet wrapped my head around the idea. Anyway, thanks. Good thought-provoking response.

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  5. Really great article, Jim. Gave me a lot of food for thought. I’ve always thought of Dylan as-as much a poet as a songwriter but you’ve made me think harder about that. Whatever he is, he’s pretty uniquely Dylan.

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