It’s rare that when a prize is given to someone, it is the prize that is elevated, not the recipient. That is exactly what has happened with the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Bob Dylan is an artistic legend who needs no validation – but the Nobel Prize itself has taken a lurch towards relevance.
The first thing to note is that Dylan did not get the prize for his ‘poetry’. Instead, according to the Nobel Prize citation, he got it “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The Nobel committee did not force-fit his lyrics into an existing category, but accepted that literature exists outside the conventions typically assigned to it. This renders criticisms of Dylan’s lyrics from a poetic standpoint moot, because they weren’t written as stand-alone poems, but as songs set to music. The Nobel Prize citation recognises them as literature, nevertheless—and that’s spot on.
What is literature? Definitions are troublesome, but I love Franz Kafka’s description of an ideal book as an “axe for the frozen sea within us.” For more than half a century now, Dylan has been wielding that axe and reaching into millions of frozen seas. His songs range from the political to the deeply personal: he captured the spirit of the times with the same acuity with which he wrote about his own existential struggles. His art evolved as he aged, and some of his meditations on ageing and death (listen to ‘Not Dark Yet’) are as powerful as any literature you will read.
Dylan’s impact is incomparable: He changed the landscape of popular music in America, influencing generations of songwriters, but his influence goes beyond the world of music. He is the most cited songwriter in US judicial opinions, showing how deeply his songs permeated into the culture. No previous winner of this prize has moved so many people to tears or rage or joy or wonder.
If you Google a definition for literature, the first one you will come across reads: “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” This is the crux of much criticism of this award: Dylan wrote great songs, but they’re not primarily written words, so how are they literature? Here it must be asked: Why “written words”, and not just “words”? Long before printed books existed, epic poets wrote their poems to be performed. We consider them literature today. William Shakespeare, in fact, wrote little that was meant for the printed page; and yet, if his plays are not literature, nothing is. Writing or print is merely one medium for words: surely the medium does not matter, and the words themselves do.
I am going to stretch that argument further. Shakespeare’s plays were basically screenplays for theatre productions, so how are they different, in terms of category, from screenplays for movies? The most powerful art form of our times, in fact, is the TV series, so what about those? Would Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), William Goldman (All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride) and David Simon (The Wire, Treme) be future candidates for a Nobel Prize for Literature? What about stand-up comedy? The greatest artistic genius of our times, in my opinion, is Louis CK. His masterpiece, the TV series Louie, cracks open my frozen sea time and again. Is his work literature? Could he win the Nobel some day?
The merits of specific artists are irrelevant to this discussion, though. What matters is that the Nobel Prize Committee, with this bold award to Bob Dylan, has acknowledged that literature exists outside the narrow confines of past conventions. For this, they must be congratulated.