Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

Should Bob Dylan Have Won the Nobel Prize in Literature?



First of all, what are some bad reasons for denying him the award? Some people who agree with me complain that he is inconsistent and has written a lot of bad lyrics. That may be true, but it’s not a good reason to deny him the prize. We judge achievement by the highs, not the averages. Does anyone complain about the Nobel Laureates in chemistry that they also wrote some papers that weren’t super important? While it’s amazing that Alice Munro has never written a bad story as far as I can tell, we shouldn’t hold all writers to that standard. In fact, it’s a shame, because if Alice Munro’s quality control was a little more lax, maybe we’d get more stories.
Others who agree with me complain that song lyrics shouldn’t count as literature, but I find those kinds of discussions tedious. Of course they can — as can, for that matter, journalism, movie and TV screenplays, webcomics, video game scripts, tweets, etc. My one sentence justification for why: song lyrics can have an incredible impact totally apart from songs — as words themselves — and that defines them as within the realm of literature for me. There are many people who have written song lyrics that can have that kind of impact. To name some non-controversial names, Tom Waits, Bulat Okudzhava, Leonard Cohen, Novella Matveeva, Patti Smith, John Darnielle, and, yes, Bob Dylan.


The difference is that for song lyrics, their impact as literature will never be their primary goal. The criteria by which you should judge song lyrics is different than the criteria by which you should judge works which are meant to be read. Jarvis Cocker, another songwriter I admire, makes this point on Pulp’s album His ’n Hers, where the lyrics sheet has the note “please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings”. And yes, that’s also true of plays, and yet I didn’t write a big thing complaining about it when Dario Fo won the Nobel. The difference is that the Nobel committee has given the award to playwrights many times previously, and will give it to playwrights many times in the future. I don’t think that’s the case for songwriting.


Since the Nobel committee is likely not going to concentrate on song lyrics in the future, the Nobel to Dylan can be thought as recognition of songwriting as a form of literature. In that way, it’s more like a physics Nobel: you want to recognize the area of topological phases, and so you give the prize to major figures in that field — Kosterlitz, Thouless and Haldane. Similarly, you want to give the prize for songwriting, so you give it to a major figure in the field — Dylan.


An important point here is that the physics Nobel committee are experts in physics, and the physics of topological phases is a type of physics. The Nobel committee on literature are not experts on songwriting. They’re out of the loop, and they don’t know what’s good.


When the Nobel prize goes to a given literary figure, it doesn’t make sense to complain that there’s someone else who is better “qualified for that award”. Because it’s not right to interpret the award as the statement that the laureate is the best living writer who does not have a Nobel. It’s taken for granted that there are many deserving candidates, and the committee has simply picked one of them. However, in the case of a songwriting Nobel, there is only one — and so this kind of complaint suddenly does make sense. And therefore, the committee has an even more difficult task than we thought: they need to judge not only what is good in a field they don’t understand, but what’s the best.


So why pick Dylan? Either as a populist move, or as an affirmation of the expansion of the boundaries of culture, this move is a failure. If you’re giving the award as a recognition of songwriting in the populist spirit, you want to pick a group award. Songwriting is a popular form, and you want to throw a sop to the people who care about the importance of songwriting. Like you do in physics. I would have been happy with B. Dylan-L. Cohen-P. Smith, for instance. From this point of view, giving it to Dylan alone is like giving a Nobel to Kosterlitz but not Thouless (Berezinskii could not be reached for comment).


If, instead, you’re making an avant-garde gesture about expanding the boundaries of what is and isn’t literature, then give the award to an avant-garde songwriter. Don’t give it to someone as entrenched and universally recognized as Dylan. There is a reason the Grammys aren’t thought of as a good indication of the best music, and to the extent that the Nobel prize in literature becomes like the Grammys, it is a bad idea.
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