Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature: A Bold Statement

Commentary by
Cody Sacks

In the 1960s, teenager Bob Dylan began his musical career in Greenwich Village and steadily grew into the incredibly prolific folk singer/songwriter that the world recognizes today. Fifty-five years after performing in those small city clubs, Dylan would be awarded today’s most prestigious award, The Nobel Prize, but unexpectedly, for literature.

The Swedish Academy is the organization that distributes the Nobel Prize; it created the award in 1901 and has annually granted it to persons who make profound advances in fields including chemistry, literature, physics and peace. The organization chose to honor Dylan this year for having “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” It was not any individual song or piece of poetry that earned Dylan The Nobel Prize, but rather his entire life’s work as a songwriter, artist and poet.

Dylan has yet to comment on his award. When it was announced, he was busy touring in the Southwest; since then, he removed a post from his website that recognized the honor after it generated too much media attention. He has also yet to respond to or contact the Swedish Academy. Perhaps it is Dylan’s desire to stay away from reporting media (he only participated in one television interview since the 1980s: a 60 Minutes piece in 2006), but both an academy member and a Swedish writer separately described him as “impolite and arrogant”. Dylan’s reaction has not been taken lightly.

Further, the Academy’s decision to bestow the literature award upon a folk musician generated changing commentary from many prominent writers and artists. Stephen King praised the decision, stating, “(Dylan) is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition, great choice.” However, others questioned the decision’s validity. Author Jodi Picoult inquired, “I’m happy for Bob Dylan, but does this mean I can win a Grammy?”

While the unconventional nature of the decision to bestow a literary award to a musician is the source of the widely differing responses, United States Poetry Laureate Billy Collins, expressed that Dylan’s work is indeed poetry in addition to music. Bob Dylan is surely an unorthodox artist; his works range from hit songs like “Tangled Up in Blue” to a 1971 poetry collection called “Tarantula,” but Collins confirms that “Bob Dylan is in the two percent of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page even without the harmonica and the guitar and his very distinctive voice. He does qualify as poetry.”
Dylan blends popular music and poetry, which fall into the categories of “low-art” and “high-art,” respectively.

David Hajdu, a music critic for The Nation, believes the academy is outwardly starting to bridge these two categories, explaining, “It’s literature, but it’s music… it’s also highly commercial. The old categories of high and low art, they’ve been collapsing for a long time, but this is it being made official.”

Nevertheless, the Academy chose someone who the public views as a popular folk musician, and this could potentially broaden what will be considered literature in the future. After being asked whether the scope of literature itself is evolving, Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, alluded to one of Mr. Dylan’s songs in her response, saying, “The times, they are a-changing, perhaps.” As Dylan wrote and sang, “Come writers and critics, who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again.”

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