Earlier this week the Swedish Academy announced that American songwriter Bob Dylan was the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. It was the first time a musician was awarded the prestigious prize. Naturally, certain questions pop up: What qualifies as literature? And where exactly does it intersect with music? Moreover, is Dylan primarily a musician or a poet? And does he deserve a Nobel Prize? I’ll try and tackle these one by one.
What is literature?
Not only books, apparently. Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America, published in 2009, contains a brave new and surprisingly inclusive definition of literature: “literary means not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form.” Apart from focusing exclusively on the written word, the massive anthology also deals with subjects such as comic strips, film, radio, photography, and, well, music (as a matter of fact, its index contains numerous references to Dylan, as do many other literary studies).
To be sure, not everyone has been in agreement. In an article for Harper’s Magazine in March 2014, American essayist Arthur Krystal defends the traditional literary canon, concluding that:
The truth is we want from poetry and prose what Bob Dylan and advertisements and even many well written commercial novels cannot provide. We want important writing (…) to explore the human condition, and we want our writers to function, as T.S. Eliot said of the metaphysical poets, as “curious explorers of the soul.
Now this is an interesting statement. In my view, the simple fact that Krystal feels the need to mention Dylan by name in his defense of “important writing” is already a sign of defeat and a direct acknowledgment of the latter’s significance and influence on contemporary culture.
But more importantly, it is hard to see how someone could seriously argue that Dylan’s work does not “explore the human condition”. If to be part of the literary world one should have a typewriter, a publishing contract and a membership in the Writers’ Union, then probably gifted lyricists like Dylan do not fit the bill. But to say that the man has not been a “curious explorer of the soul” is simply inaccurate, if not depreciating or spiteful.
The music of words
Literature, in fact, has quite a lot in common with music. To begin with, the works of classics such as Homer or Hesiod that feature in every literary canon were meant to be recited to musical accompaniment rather than simply “read” in the modern sense of the word. Besides, some of the main aesthetic characteristics of both prose and poetry such as textual rhythm, pace, or sound (e.g. the use of alliteration or assonance) are essentially musical qualities – hence the term musicality as applied to literary works.
There can be, thus, no literature without music. From Homer to experimental post-modern fiction the musical element has always been intrinsic to literary creation.
Bob Dylan: Poet or songwriter?
By this point, I hope it’s clear that the above question should sound quite irrelevant, if not misleading. The high literary quality of Dylan’s lyrics is obvious to anyone who has seriously concerned himself with his work (it is no coincidence that many acclaimed writers share this view). Although always considered a songwriter, articles and essays centering on the poetic dimension of Dylan’s work had appeared early on in his career, while literary scholars have been citing him extensively over the last 50 years (notably, Cambridge University Press released The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan in 2009).
Bob Dylan with Allen Ginsberg in 1975 / Photo: Elsa Dorfman
After all, Dylan has always been a resourceful and multifaceted artist capable of reinventing himself constantly, and any effort to categorize or label him is essentially doomed to fail (“he not busy being born is busy dying”, as the song goes). He is both poet and songwriter, lyricist and singer, guitarist and harmonicist, folk and rock, acoustic and electric, joker and prophet. A troubadour of troubled times.
Songs and books
This is not the first time the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to a non-conventional literary figure (notable examples include Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill, who won the prize in 1950 and 1953 respectively). It is, however, the first time that it goes to a musician and this has some significant repercussions.
First, it reflects a general shift in ideas as to what exactly is considered literature. This also applies to last year’s winner, Belarusian journalist and non-fiction writer Svetlana Alexievich, whose work many consider non-literary. It appears, then, that the term literature can –and, indeed, should– encompass a larger variety of expression, content, form, and style.
Moreover, the committee’s decision further goes to show how the long-held distinction between high and low (i.e. “commercial” or “popular”) art is becoming increasingly irrelevant. A rock star winning the Nobel Prize is truly exceptional, and bound to have profound implications in the discussion about both the definition and boundaries of literature.
So is Bob Dylan worth the award? In answering this, I turn to the role music, and song lyrics in particular, have played in my development as a person from childhood to the present. And I imagine I am not alone in finding that certain lyrics have marked me irreversibly, profoundly shaping my way of thinking and seeing the world.
Now, there are not many people who could claim a Nobel Prize for their lyrics, and no doubt Dylan was the most obvious candidate (another one would be Leonard Cohen, but there’s always room for more). In this sense, this year’s choice was refreshing in that it acknowledged the importance and formative role of lyrics while elevating popular song to the level of literature.
Indeed, the words of the songs we love are often the same as precious as the books we hold most dear.