Times a-changin’: Nobel jury says lyrics can be literature
STOCKHOLM – There’s no question about Bob Dylan’s genius as a songwriter or his profound impact on popular culture in America and beyond.
But not everyone thinks he deserves a Nobel Prize for literature, an honor normally bestowed on novelists, poets and playwrights, often far away from the mainstream.
The Swedish Academy’s surprise choice Thursday thrilled some and disappointed others, who felt giving the award to Dylan made a mockery of the prestigious Nobel Prizes.
“If you’re a ‘music’ fan, look it up in the dictionary. Then ‘literature.’ Then compare and contrast,” Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh said in a Twitter outburst.
Welsh, the author of “Trainspotting,” said although he’s a Dylan fan, he found the prize this year an “ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”
Many of the most famous literature laureates in Nobel history were novelists or poets: T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Jean-Paul Sartre and Mario Vargas Llosa. Some were also playwrights, including Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
But on a few occasions, the academy broadened the scope of the Nobel Prize to other types of wordsmiths. Winston Churchill, for example, was cited for his “brilliant oratory” skills when he won in 1953. Canadian writer Alice Munro was awarded in 2013 for her short stories.
Although some Nobel Literature laureates have been musicians as well as writers, Dylan is the first since the Nobel Prizes started in 1901 to be cited specifically for song lyrics. The Swedish Academy, however, said it wasn’t opening the prize to a new genre, noting that poetry has often been put to music, including the works of ancient Greek writers like Homer and Sappho.
“Bob Dylan is a great poet. It’s as simple as that,” the academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, told The Associated Press. “He’s a great poet in the great English language tradition stretching from William Blake onwards.”
Gordon Ball, an English professor who unsuccessfully nominated the singer-songwriter for the Nobel Prize more than 10 times – but didn’t do it this year – said he felt vindicated by the award.
“People thought I was crazy or really out of line” to suggest that Dylan should be awarded such a prize,” said Ball, who teaches at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
He stressed the impact of Dylan’s songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the 1960s civil rights movement in the U.S.
“In short, he has changed the world for the better, I feel,” Ball said.
In his will, prize founder Alfred Nobel wrote that the literature award should go “to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”
British fantasy writer Philip Pullman also welcomed the honoring of Dylan, saying he hoped, as a result, Nobel judges might in the future look at a wider range of writing.
“One result might be to open the prize to genre fiction as well as the ‘literary’ sort,” he said on Twitter.
However, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, which frequently chimes in on pop culture, was among those not impressed by the award.
While Dylan has “great talent,” many of the artists inspired by his songs subsequently wrote “truly boring” lyrics, the paper said. It added that the Nobel decision certainly “must not have pleased real writers, such as potential winners Don DeLillo, Philip Roth or Haruki Murakami, who know the enormous work that goes into writing a novel.”
Seven years ago, when Dylan was among the rumored candidates, the academy hinted that songwriters weren’t excluded from the list of possible winners. The secretary at the time, Peter Englund, told the AP in 2009 that the academy should be “generous” in its interpretation of what literature is and isn’t.
“I think the boundaries are a bit more porous, a bit more generous, a bit more flexible than one imagines,” he said. “And I hope that they will be expanded.”