Like most people I was astonished at the announcement that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I mean, WTF? He’s a song-writer! What were they thinking?
Let’s consider this more judiciously. Firstly, can song lyrics can be literature? Well, in one sense, why not? Then again, in a song the words and music are designed to go together, so that to look at the lyrics in isolation is like viewing a painting through sunglasses. You’ve only got half the experience that the author intended. Then again, maybe the lyrics can work as stand-alone poems, in the same way that Shakespeare’s plays can be read as well as seen.
But the crucial question is, are they literature? Well, what is literature? What is the difference between literature and fiction (if there is one) or between literature and poetry?Well, I guess it’s the difference between the good and the best. Literature represents the best of the written output of a culture; that which stands out from the rest and which may in time turn out to be great literature, ie that which transcends time and place and shows itself to be universal. Fiction speaks to a time and place; literature speaks more widely and great literature resounds through space and time. Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Austen, Dante, etc are read in every literate culture; and Shakespeare’s stories are told in many illiterate societies too.
The Nobel Prize for Literature reflects this. And it is is international: by its very nature it picks that which speaks not just to one culture but to many; that which transcends borders and may well stand the test of time. Can we really say that about Bob Dylan? Does Dylan speak to Russians and Africans and Chinese as he does to Westerners?
I think we’ve got confused about this. We’ve got mixed up in the boundaries between cultural elites and literary merit. Yes, we need to keep expanding the boundaries to include writers from second-and third-world countries as well as considering LGBT writing (considering women goes without saying, I should hope) and putting these on a par with white Western males. This has been reflected in recent Nobel Laureates: J M Coetzee, V S Naipaul, Alice Monro, Orhan Pamuk and Mario Vargas Llosa have all won the prize in the last ten years and stand alongside the more familiar figures of Harold Pinter and Doris Lessing. But expanding the boundaries to consider these groups is not the same as awarding prizes, and more often than not nowadays I think we tick the boxes rather than seriously considering merit. People are so scared of being called elitist that they sometimes choose people who don’t deserve to win rather than genuinely weighing the options. (I am always slightly uneasy when people complain at the lack of women on particular shortlists as though this were prima facie evidence of discrimination. It may be: then again unless we can find independent evidence – novels by women which were overlooked in favour of worse novels by men – the argument won’t stand up.)
Mind you, to judge fairly requires an opening of the mind not only to other styles and forms but to different types of merit. As far as I can see the Nobel committee has done a fairly good job of this recently. Until this year, when they lost their minds. Let’s hope they get back on track soon.
Bob Dylan is a great singer/songwriter. But a Nobel Laureate? Do me a favour!
If you disagree I’d really like to hear why. Please post your favourite Dylan lyrics with reasons why you think they count as literature.