After Bob Dylan was officially presented with the Nobel Literature Award, David Young weighs in on the debate over whether music can be considered literature and whether Dylan is a truly worthy recipient of the award.
Bob Dylan has been no stranger to controversy in the press throughout his six-decade career, but usually it’s his own fault. Since October however, he’s been tangled in a mess not of his own doing. In the bizarre process which sees the winner of the most-highly esteemed prize in world literature being picked by seven Swedish writers who you’ve never heard of, Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. An unpopular choice as it turned out, with Vice, Pitchfork, Slate, The Telegraph and The New York Times all writing articles in complaint, squaring up to the likes of the Guardian, the Independent and Rolling Stone in Bob’s defence. Naturally, it falls to Pi to settle the dispute – was Bob a worthy winner? Absolutely.
There was a lot of confusion following the announcement of the decision, and it didn’t help that the Nobel Committee’s explanation of Bob’s victory seemed somewhat incongruous: for “creating new poetic expressions in the American tradition”, something which suggests elegant metaphors and flamboyant phrases – things that are not Dylan’s currency. Granted the allusion to the American tradition was spot on – American geography, politics, history and mythology are central to Dylan’s art – but it appears something was lost in translation.
Their explanation also didn’t help to smooth over the main point of contention – it seems a bit dubious to classify Dylan as literature, after all, his works are listened to rather than read, performed rather than written, and their meaning is enhanced by music, which is a non-verbal art form.
Sure, it is a bit of a stretch to call Dylan an author of literature. But I think it’s a stretch that Nobel would have wanted us to make. For he also said that the prize should go to an author who had provided “the greatest benefit to mankind” and produced “outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Dylan ticks these boxes, no problem.
And though Dylan’s work may not seem to be so traditionally, it is essentially literature. Everything you get from great literature you can get from the work of Bob Dylan. His songs are invariably enthralling, poetic stories of the highest calibre. Through Bob’s aesthetically beautiful works of fiction we can come to learn valuable new things of the world and people around us. And he writes like a great author of literature – he is distinctive, imaginative, innovative, nuanced, insightful, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, confounds expectations, has immersive plots, great characters and is a master of language. Unlike the vast majority of lyricists, his songs tell stories; he writes with very little repetition, and every word gives the impression of being chosen for the specific impetus it will supply to the narrative.
And while the fact that Dylan’s works can’t really be experienced or packaged in the same way traditional works of literature can, the way we unravel the message or meaning of Bob’s art is the same as in literature – through the decoding of language. It may be spoken language rather than written language, but why should this matter? In both cases words are the medium.
This was one of the main sticking points of the initial debate concerning Bob’s prize, with many taking the position that for art to be literature, it had to consist of written language only, making Dylan ineligible. If Dylan’s works are read as texts as if they were poems, some of the quality is inexorably lost – expressed purely as written language, Dylan’s lyrics are not Nobel Prize-worthy.
But this is a bizarre position to adopt given that plays are traditionally accepted forms of literature, and they too suffer the issue of losing their fidelity when read only as texts. The works of Beckett and O’Neill were not written in order to be read, but rather to be performed. They should be experienced through performance, and something is lost when they are only read in one’s head. Since this is true of Beckett, O’Neill and Dylan, and the first two are clearly authors of literature, why can’t Dylan be?
Well maybe he can’t be because he uses non-verbal media to convey his semantic content – sound is integral to Dylan’s art, whether it’s music setting the mood of his work, or tone of voice disclosing information about his characters. But again the same argument can be made for plays. They also use non-verbal media to convey semantic content, through tone of voice, appearance, gestures and body language. If plays can be literature, then so can lyrics.
And that’s why Dylan deserves his prize. He is an author of literature because literature encompasses all art forms which convey semantic content primarily through language, even if some non-verbal forms of communication have to be used to appreciate a work to the full.
In fact, it is long overdue that lyricists are recognised as worthy candidates for the Nobel prize, as Dylan is but the first of many that would be deserving winners. Leonard Cohen would have been a great choice, but sadly no-one can be nominated posthumously. His fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell is perhaps then the next most obvious choice, a singular talent who like Bob merges the funny, the tragic and the everyday with beauty, wit and fierce intelligence. Then, further down the line, Nick Cave and Tom Waits would be deserving winners. Perhaps in many years even a figure like Kendrick Lamar could win the Nobel Prize, with a focus on dignifying and chronicling the lives of the marginalised and challenging racism already topics that have frequently been honoured by the Nobel Committee.
So congratulations to Bob Dylan, legendary songwriter and truly deserving Nobel Prize winner. Here’s hoping he’s the first of many.
Featured Image Credit- Wikimedia Commons