Bob Dylan, the Nobel, and Literature


Yesterday morning, at approximately 5:00 am, I received a news notification on my phone. Upon reading that notification, I promptly went back to sleep. Much to my surprise, when I again awoke, I had not in fact been dreaming; Bob Dylan had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Now, my initial reaction was knee-jerk confusion and even anger. After having cooled off and coming around to a much more reasonable opinion on this, I do still harbor some resentment at this selection for the most prestigious award in the field of literature being awarded to an artist whose impact on literature itself has not been terribly profound, who was the first American selected since Toni Morrison in 1993 over the likes of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, and Cormac McCarthy, and who was deemed to deserve the award more than the likes of international genius’ of literature such as Haruki Murakami of Japan, Adonis of Syria, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o of Kenya, to name a few. I obviously still do not agree.

I do, however, think that there is an interesting, or at least viable, conversation to be had here. Namely, what exactly is this “literature” that we keep referring to? The selection of Dylan has been defensible in large part because it is so impossible to define the limits of what literature is, especially in the modern world. There is something to be said for songwriting as a sub genre of poetry, an obviously literary field, albeit one that depends not on its poetics primarily. Within this sub genre, it’s hard to argue that anyone does songwriting better than Dylan. But is that enough? Do the lyrics stand alone from the music and the performance? Or should they have to? Suddenly, these are questions which are being considered, especially with the classical precedents of Greek orators (although any and all comparisons of Dylan to Homer are ludicrous and should stop immediately).

There is also a faction of the literary world, including apparently a part of the Nobel council, who claim that this is a part of a growing populist movement in literature that is diluting both the field and the award of the Nobel itself. The field of writing has certainly gone grassroots, as a cursory examination of the digital writing space will show you, but does this indicate a diluting of literature? And in regards to the award, Winston Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, which can hardly be called an objectively literary decision. So, is today’s literary culture in a new danger of being overrun by vapidity and popularity? I think that danger does exist, but not necessarily due to the recognition of Bob Dylan as a literary influence.

Overall, I do not approve of the award. I have a hard time attaching the label of literature to Bob Dylan’s songwriting, and, despite their massive impact on songwriting and lyricism in music in general, I don’t feel that the literary field as a whole has been remarkably changed by Blonde on Blonde. When looking at all of the other writers who were overlooked for the award in order to make this decision, some of whom will probably never get another chance, since the Nobel committee spreads the award around between countries, practically disqualifying many Americans for the next decade, this decision seems indefensible.

Please let me know why you think I’m wrong, I certainly prefer to celebrate instead of lament, and I would love to hear some other opinions on this.
 A NYT opinion on the matter:

Image courtesty of


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