But is it Lit-richa?

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.

Kirk out

13 thoughts on “But is it Lit-richa?

  1. Dylan is not poet. Some of his lyrics DO stand up as poetry (Every Grain Of Sand springs to mind) but even those are not outstanding poetry. My first thought on hearing of the award was that this was a ‘political act’ (as was Obama’s Peace Prize, awarded before he’d taken office): a coded message to American voters not to elect the bilious dolt Trump by giving the koh-i-noor of literary awards to an artist who represents that country’s better self, as well as being an embodiment of its’ ‘soft power’.

    To my mind, the greatest Nobel laureate was Knut Hamsun, who was awarded the prize in 1920.

  2. It’s been widely expected that the establishment would acknowledge Dylan as a poet since the 1960s. The fact that they have now done so is therefore not surprising but it doesn’t make it valid as such. My personal feeling is that I can’t get into Dylan but I can get into Cohen big time, and it feels unfair, whatever Dylan’s merits may be, that Leonard Cohen is not similarly acknowledged.

  3. I’m all for them being acknowledged but is the Nobel Prize the appropriate way to do it? They are songwriters and should be acknowledged in that sphere

  4. Dylan has been awarded just about every worthwhile music award there is, as well as a fair few non-musical ones (the Tom Paine Prize – which he won when he was twenty-two and the French Legion Of Honour), so there’d be little point in another such award. As for Leonard Cohen – unlike Dylan, I would categorise him as a poet, separate to his achievements as a songwriter. To my mind, though, he is a distinctly minor poet (some would argue, even a bad one), whereas he is definitely a great songwriter. He became a singer-songwriter because his purely literary work wasn’t paying the bills.

  5. I think I agree with your assessment of Cohen as a poet. It is interesting however that no matter what musical awards Dylan has been awarded they are not perceived as ‘the establishment’

  6. i honestly dont know any Dylan lyrics apart from the odd one or two lines from famous songs. I did buy a vinyl single of Dylans once called WIGWAM………….it contained no lyrics at all, just NA NA NANANA, NA NA NAANANA, the flip side was COPPER KETTLE, which had very forgettable lyrics. However, I think many Lennon and Macca songs ARE clever poetry put to music. Eleanor Rigby springs to mind with lines such as “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door”, wow, and In My Life, and Norwegian Wood, Lady Madonna…………..but………..I dont think any song writer can be considered for any literature prize because their output is necessarily short, unlike the novelist, who has had to consider their one piece of work for possibly several months.

    1. With songs, the final version might be short (though not necessarily in Dylan’s case – he has written songs that last eleven minutes’ plus) but it can take years to get it to its final form (the same applies to poetry and, indeed, to novels and short stories).

      You’ve clearly had an ‘atypical’ experience of Dylan, as the track you cite is one of his most obscure, from one of his most controversial albums (Self Portrait).

      As to Lennon and McCartney – I tend to think of them as ‘lazy’ lyricists, who were occasionally inspired. Lennon could come up with striking imagery (I Am The Walrus, Strawberry Fields Forever) but wasn’t always inclined to craft it into songs. McCartney could write what I call ‘efficient’ verse (The Long & Winding Road) but too often is satisfied with the half-baked and the banal. Apparently, Ringo thought up the line in E.R. about the face in the jar by the door!

      1. I cant believe Ringo came up with that line, first cos I dont think he has it in him, and second cos he would have been listed as one of the authors and got dosh for it………..we know how macca loves money, i cant see him giving it away like that. Its a macca song and was perhaps his own inspiration for his first solo hit, Another Day, which I think is also worthy of being called poetry set to music. but your right about both of them being a little lazy. |Apparently the producer (whose name has just left my head, also known as the 5th Beatle sometimes) would be the only one brave enough to tell macca that lots of his songs were rubbish . He wrote so many in his early days that he couldnt tell the great from the mediocre ! lol. There was an actual poet, Canadian I think, forget his name, years ago, who wrote poetry then put them to music and sang them in a husky , not very good, singing voice.

  7. Ringo came up with the title of the song (and film) A Hard Day’s Night (for which he received no credit, either). A lot of Beatles song were written ‘by committee’ with all four (and others) chipping in to make contributions (the line ‘sky of blue, sea of green’ in Yellow Submarine was actually contributed by Donovan – remember him?). Songwriting was not the formal business then that it is now.

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