Monday, September 16, 2019

Seares: Controversy over Bob Dylan’s Nobel

“Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read.”
-- From Bob Dylan’s, June 5 Nobel lecture

BOB Dylan, songwriter and singer, who was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, finally delivered the lecture that clinched his right to the $900,000 prize money, just a few days shy of the June 10 deadline.

He didn’t show up at the Dec. 10, 2016 honoring of Nobel winners and formally accepted it only last April 1 in Stockholm before members of the Swedish Academy. With his lecture last week, a Nobel official noted that it should end the narrative over Dylan’s award.

But not the question whether a songwriter and singer should get the prize, which was asked as early as last October when Dylan’s name was announced. The award citation noted that Dylan “created new poetic expressions within the great American tradition.”


Anna North of New York Times in an Oct. 13, 2016 opinion piece summed up the objection thus: the Swedish Academy, in choosing not to award it to a writer, missed the opportunity to honor writers and affirm that prose and poetry still matter. Stephen Metcalf, writing for the culture blog of Slate, said: “Objection hinges in the definition of the word ‘literature.’ You don’t give it to an economist or a saint politician.”

Dylan himself had his doubts over the wisdom of it. Before he learned about the award, Dylan said, he would’ve compared his Nobel chance to that of his standing on the moon. And his lecture didn’t dispel the skepticism. He said he didn’t have to understand his songs: “If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what it means.”

Literature’s loss

The Swedish Academy had its reasons: maybe “to bring a new cultural currency to the prize and make it relevant to a younger age.” But it should’ve limited itself to the genre, prose and poetry that can be read and appreciated even in total silence. I take out the music from Bob Dylan’s “poetry” and I am less moved. As he himself notes, his words are meant to be sung.

He deserves his Grammys, his lifetime achievement awards, his rock & roll hall of fame, his influence in the American culture scene. But in giving the Nobel to Bob Dylan, literature must suffer some loss. Is the field of prose and poetry utterly barren and parched? It must not be so.
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