Do We Really Need the Nobel Prize in Literature?
There must be some kind of way out of here
said the joker to the thief.
When I first read the announcement last week that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, I thought it was a joke and that my friend was passing along an article from The Onion. As the day wore on, I discovered that this was no joke and that friends of Dylan were uncorking their bottles left and right to celebrate.
A few friends expressed some ambivalence, one writing: “I have nothing against Bob Dylan, but there are some many other worthy writers who’ve been overlooked this year.” Others very forthrightly supported the Nobel Committee’s selection and argued quite passionately that the Committee couldn’t have selected a better recipient.
One friend, a Dylanologist, called Dylan “America’s Franz Schubert.” John McEuen summed up his reaction to the news by pointing out that Dylan’s written so many words that “affect so many people, and those words have captured the essence of what people in the culture were thinking; look at ‘The Death of Hattie Carroll,’ as an example.”
Part of the controversy that’s surrounded this selection focuses on the definition of literature. Critics ask, How can songwriting count as literature? Isn’t Dylan a musician, and can his lyrics really be understood apart from the musical scores that surround them, or apart from their performance? Aren’t songs meant to be performed and not read, after all? Is Dylan really a great poet, deserving of such a prize?
Fifty years from now, those of us still around will get to see the other nominees on the Nobel Committee’s list. (Since it started awarding these prizes, the Nobel Committee has placed a 50-year moratorium on releasing the list of nominees for each prize; thus, only the nominees from 1901-1965 are available for us to see.
In the end, though, the Nobel Prize in Literature has become as meaningless as the word “Americana.” Let’s face it: an 18-member committee in Sweden reads and considers the writings of hundreds of writers every year; those writers have been nominated to the Committee by their fellow writers or citizens of their country. The criteria for the prize are vague at best, and the Committee’s definition of literature is even vaguer: the prize is awarded in the field of literature to “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” In the recent past, at least, this definition has expanded to mean something like: a body of work (prizes are not awarded for single works) that expresses some form of idealism, especially with regard to human rights. There’s no question that Dylan matches such criteria, of course, but so do a few hundred other authors.
Unlike other literary prizes — such as the Man Booker or the Orange or the National Book Award — the Committee releases neither a long list nor a short list of nominees. So, every October, just in time for the Frankfurt Book Fair — the largest and oldest book fair in the world, drawing in over 500,000 attendees each year, where publishers buy and sell rights to translate books into various languages — the Committee makes its announcement, sending the author’s publishers into swoons of ecstasy.
The Nobel Prize in Literature often results in a six-week bump in sales of the writer’s books. In 2009, Herta Mueller, one of whose books we published at the publisher where I was working, won the prize. English-language translations of her books were published by at least three different publishers, each of whom, including us, rushed to reprint her works. At Frankfurt that year, I attended a lavish gala dinner in her honor, hosted by her German publisher — one of Germany’s largest — and for two months, we reaped the bounty of the announcement; our sales shot up, but then leveled off.
When I tried to buy the English-language rights to Mueller’s next book, of course, I found that I couldn’t pay such a high price. Mueller stepped from the shadows for a momentary turn in the spotlight. Her next novel sold poorly, her time in the sun barely recalled.
When the Swedish Academy announced the selection of Dylan, it gave him credit for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This raises a question that many critics have asked about this selection: Why a songwriter?
This is the first time the Nobel Committee has awarded the prize to a songwriter and musician, but the Committee has also selected a speechwriter, Winston Churchill, who was awarded the prize for his speeches, and a playwright, Dario Fo, whose death was reported on the same day that the announcement of Dylan was made.
Will Dylan be the last songwriter that the Committee ever selects? Who knows? Does his selection make sense? As much as any other decision this Committee has ever made; recall that the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to warmongers in the past.
I’m still not convinced that Dylan deserves the prize, and I think that’s only because there have been others toiling in these fields for so long who have not been recognized. Having said that, though — and I am not alone here, I think — the beauty of Dylan’s being the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature this year is that the selection forces us to consider what we mean by literature, and it encourages us to embrace a dynamic view of the development of literature and its impact on culture. As Dylan sings, “he’s who not busy born is busy dying.”
Many of us live with Dylan’s words in our hearts and souls, and those words have had a deep impact on our culture. Of course, one can ask the extent to which those same words have crossed cultures and had similar impact, but that begs a question since the works of many Nobel Laureates are not translated until after they win the Prize. The real sign that Dylan is writing literature: at least one literary anthology, The Oxford Book of American Poetry, includes one of his songs, “Desolation Row,” and there’s an entire book of essays devoted to interpreting his lyrics, The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan.
What difference will it make to Bob Dylan that he’s won the Nobel Prize in Literature? None whatsoever. In fact, Jean-Paul Sartre refused to accept his Medallion, saying that it didn’t matter whether he signed his name as Jean-Paul Sartre or as Jean-Paul Sartre, Noble Laureate. And the news that Dylan has not responded to the announcement — at least as I write this — as well as the news that the Swedish Academy has had great difficulty reaching him might tell us even Dylan sees the prize for what it is: a nostalgic memento of a time when such accolades gave rise to momentary cultural adulation and excitement.
In the end, maybe Dylan deserves this prize, but in the long run, we no longer need the Nobel Prize in Literature to single out and define the work that represents the heart of a culture and that crafts songs from the language of ordinary people and speaks to them. Let’s hope we never need a prize to recognize that.