Bob Dylan’s selection to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016 has stirred up considerable controversy. People are either strongly in favor or very much opposed. The award seems to be intended for a unique poet/songwriter. The Nobel Academy said Dylan “Created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Sara Danius, the Nobel Academy’s permanent secretary, said she “hoped” the decision would not be heavily criticized. She said, “If you look back, far back, 2,500 years or so, you discover Homer and Sappho and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to. They were meant to be performed, often together with instruments. and it’s the same way with Bob Dylan.”
Here are some Dylan lyrics:
From Tangled up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks, 1975):
We always did feel the same We just saw it from a different point of view Tangled up in blue
From My Back Pages (Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964):
“Equality”, I spoke the word as if a wedding vow Ah, I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now
From Lay Lady Lay (Nashville Skyline. 1969:
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed Whatever colors you have in your mind I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine
From Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
With your mercury mouth in the missionary times And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes And your silver cross and your your voice like chimes Oh, who do they think could bury you?
Objections surfaced quickly all over the world. One commentator labeled the selection, “an ill-conceived nostalgia award.” Another said it insulted “ten thousand fine writers” who could have won the award in his place. Fiammetta Rocco, manager of the Man Booker International Prize and culture editor of The Economist, said, “It’s a gimmick. With all the extraordinary fiction that is being written all over the world, by writers whose lives are in danger and who could to some degree be protected by a Nobel Prize, why do this? Bob Dylan doesn’t need it. He is an old white man who is rich, famous, and physically safe”.
But, Professor Seamus Perry, head of the English faculty at Oxford University, said, “Dylan winning the Nobel was always the thing you thought should happen in a reasonable world but still seemed quite unimaginable in this one. He is, more than any other, the poet of our times, as Tennyson was of his, representative yet wholly individual, humane, angry, funny, and tender by turn; really, wholly himself, one of the greats.” Salman Rushdie said it was a “great choice” and the Dylan is “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition”.
Edna Gundersen’s article, resulting from a recent interview of Dylan, appeared in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph. In the interview, Dylan says that the award was, “amazing, incredible. Who ever dreams of something like that?” And that he intends to attend the awards ceremony in Stockholm “if it’s at all possible.” She says: “In interviews over the years, the famously unpredictable Dylan has been by turns combative, amiable, taciturn, philosophical, charismatic, caustic and cryptic. He has seemed, most of all, on being fiercely private and frustratingly unknowable. His apparent toying with the Noble committee cannot be said to have come entirely out of the blue.” When asked whether he could have just taken the calls from the Noble Committee, he says, “Well, I’m right here”, as if it was just a matter of the committee dialing the right number. Ms Gundersen says: “As a painter, writer, film-maker, actor and disc-jockey, Dylan plainly sees no limitations to artistic expression.” I think one should add ‘musician’ and ‘sculptor’ to that list.
As for me, I think the award is a great choice. It recognizes a man of extraordinary talent, who speaks for the times. Is it a ‘gimmick’? No. I would call it a ‘departure from the norm’ which is sometimes necessary to breathe new life into an old process. What about the ‘ten thousand other writers’? Would selecting one of the ten thousand have satisfied the other nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine? I don’t think so; it would, if anything, have intensified their sense of entitlement. What about the writers whose lives are in danger and who could be ‘protected by a Noble Prize’? Is it the function of a Nobel Prize for Literature to protect writers? I don’t think so. There will always be writers who are hated by their governments. God bless these writers! Bravo, Nobel Committee!