Should Bob Dylan Have Won the Nobel Prize for Literature?
As the Swedish Academy yesterday awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, voices from around the literary community emerged on all sides of this uncanticipated choice. Below, PEN America has gathered responses from writers across genres and generations to weigh in on the award.
Molly Brodak, poet, A Little Middle of the Night
“If the written word is truly up against the art of songwriting for the greatest literary prize in all the land, ‘baby, baby, baby, oh baby’ is going to win every time.”
Teju Cole, author, Known and Strange Things
“I like it. Literature is large.”
Michael Cunningham, author, The Hours
“I’m thrilled that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize.
It’s the best kind of unorthodox choice—surprising, and absolutely right. As the secretary of the Swedish Academy pointed out, the work of Homer and Sappho was not only meant to be read aloud, it was often accompanied by music.
Someone in the New York Times said today that Dylan represents ‘a far swing in the other direction from last year’s winner,’ Belarussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich.
I disagree. Alexievich is hardly a rock star, but she too came from out of left field, in terms of the Nobel—a journalist who relies heavily on oral history is not the anticipated choice, either.
I mean no disrespect to past winners when I say it’s good to see the Academy not only looking more widely at literature as a whole, but selecting artists who are voices of their immediate time and place, as well.
Needless to say, that shouldn’t become an unspoken rule in the future. But the idea that there’s room for untraditional choices is exciting.
I’ve spent all day wondering: Will Dylan sing when he accepts the prize? We can hope.”
Alex Dimitrov, poet, Begging for It
“This culture, which gives us so little for being poets, is the same one that doesn’t understand why it’s one thing we vehemently protect. Being a poet. Making serious art that is, for the most part, not in relation to capitalism. I get it: everybody wants to be a rock star, rock stars want to be poets. But sorry, not everyone is a poet. Poets, I love you.”
Rita Dove, poet, On the Bus with Rosa Parks
“Bob Dylan is an inspired choice. It harkens back to the days of antiquity when the bard spoke/sang to the community accompanied by a lyre.”
Peter Godwin, author, The Fear
“I’m a huge fan of Dylan. But Nobel literature laureate? I’m not so sure.
Insofar as lyrics are poetry put to music, the Nobel committee members were within their rubric to consider Dylan’s oeuvre. And some of his lyrics, at their best, do enter the literary realm. But for their real artistic alchemy most are inextricable from their musical accompaniment, and his extraordinary voice. Read baldly on the page, alone, not much of Dylan’s verse is great literature. Nor would he claim as much. And judged purely on their literary merit, other American contenders, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo for example, are, I think, more deserving candidates.
One of the great impacts of the Nobel Literature prize is that it sends millions of readers to discover or reread an author’s canon. Not so in this case when most of us will continue to consume Dylan as he intended, aurally.
At the very least, I suppose, the Nobel committee has given us an opportunity to reexamine our notions of what defines literature in the modern age.”
Porochista Khakpour, author, The Last Illusion
“Every year when the news of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature comes in, the homework I assign my students is select readings from the writer. Today was tough. I know Bob Dylan has books—that neither I nor anyone I know has read—but he was chosen for his songs. So what’s a liberal arts college professor to do?
I decided to read some lyrics out loud. I chose a song I loved, hoping the lyrics would sway even a baffled-me. And so I read ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to a classroom of blank faces, students born mainly in 1998.
Out of 14, only three had heard of him. I mentioned that was one of his better songs, and then I blathered on that he had newer music, like one that mentions his crush on Alicia Keys.
Everyone blinked and we moved on.
In 2008, Horace Engdal of the Swedish Academy, announced ‘Europe is still the center of the literary world. The U.S. is too isolated, too insular.’ So I didn’t lean too hard on my guess DeLillo—especially at the possibility of finally Murakami—or perhaps Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o? Ladbrokes was rich in good guesses.
Instead, our American: Bob Dylan! I immediately felt it reflected the climate of Trump and Brexit, the sign of ‘populist’ times, the bard for the masses! And how American too: a Literature Laureate you didn’t even have to read.
I’m still shocked—I’m guessing Bob is too—and most my day has been spent battling foam-mouthed trolls in white-dad-clothing online. But while many found the choice surprising, I found it of no surprise—just more of the same, the old message that is replayed constantly in our industry: forget the one about straight white men and their boundless laurels, but what of the one that says reading does not matter, literature is obsolete, writers are a thing of the past?
I vividly remember the last American to be awarded—my favorite, the great Toni Morrison, in 1993. I was 15, poor, a girl of color in LA, and knew I wanted to be a writer when I had never even met one. I remember crying with joy, my whole body shaking with the weight of the news. And that’s my comparison point, as a reader of American literature, as a writer of American literature.”
Neil LaBute, author, In the Company of Men
“The gods of literature have finally risen from their sleep, yawned and opened their eyes wider than ever before and the results of this awakening smile down on a true and honest creator: Mr. Bob Dylan.
How wonderful that the Nobel committee has seen fit to award a man of genius and what a particular genius he is.
Not since my NORTON ANTHOLOGY printed the lyrics of Joni Mitchell and Paul McCartney as ‘poetry’ have I been this happy to see the work and words of a musician being considered alongside the great prose and dramatic writers of our collective past.
See this for what it is: progress. Mr. Dylan is as fine a writer as we have in this country, with a wit and wisdom and turn of phrase that puts him head and shoulders above most of us mere scribblers.
Congratulations to you, Bob Dylan!”
Robert Polito, poet, Hollywood & God
“Over the 75 years of Bob Dylan’s life there have been many important and maybe even essential American poets, novelists, and nonfiction writers, and we all might agree on at least some of who these writers are. But Dylan is the only person who does exactly what he does. The Nobel Prize is an inspired recognition of a singular, and almost impossibly gifted artist, and he’s still creating unparalleled work at the crossroads of music and literature, folk process and Modernism—just listen to Tempest, Modern Times, Love & Theft, and Time Out of Mind. I remember that in the 1990s Czesław Miłosz (Nobel Prize, 1980) once told me that based on his conversations with members of the Swedish Academy Dylan was the only American writer in serious Nobel Prize contention, despite the annual rumors around Roth, Oates, etc. How slowly the Swedish Academy moves! But I haven’t felt this patriotic in a long time.”
Theresa Rebeck, author, I’m Glad About You
“Kudos to the Nobel committee for reminding us that poetry is no less poetic when it is married to a great tune. The acknowledgment of Bob Dylan’s astonishing body of work implicitly reminds us that art is not an elitist event. In this strange moment in American history it is good to be reminded that ‘populism’ is not necessarily a pejorative word.
Congrats to Bob Dylan on this well-deserved recognition.”
Lee Schlesinger, Professor of Literture, Purchase College, SUNY
“I teach The Bible (at a public college); I teach Ezekiel. My students are perhaps astonished to find the convergence of Ezekiel and Dylan. False prophets put plaster over the decrepit Wall (says Ezekiel), and tell us, Look, everything is fine; but a hard rain is going to fall, and reveal the silly useless patchwork for what it is. Dylan says also that a hard rain is going to fall—the walls, defenses, blindness, slipshod thought and language, will be swept away, and (maybe) the end will be in sight. So this vision is accompanied by music—why look down on it for that? Most Hebrew poetry, including prophecy, was probably accompanied by music, and Greek Tragedy was centrally song and dance. As for persona: Jeremiah got arrested repeatedly and beaten up, and Ezekiel had to lie in the gutter of the refugee camp pretending to be a refugee, which he was. Do not prejudge by medium, performance, or for that matter clothing.”
Don Share, editor, Poetry Magazine
Everybody knows that Western traditions of literature have long included bards and troubadours from the Welsh, Scots, Irish, Andalusian, and Provençal verse-makers to Shakespeare, whose plays included lyrics. People who only experience poetry on the page might dissent, but this Nobel award is a way of bringing it all back home, of both reminding us of poetry’s roots and moving it forward though changing times—and for that, we should be pleased and grateful.
Jeff Shotts, Executive Editor, Graywolf Press
“Each October the Nobel Prize for Literature is announced, and part of the annual tradition has become the embarrassing flood of online posts and print articles by American critics and reporters wondering who the winner is, how to pronounce the winner’s name, why the winner is not American, and then to what exaggerated degree the prize has ‘made itself irrelevant.’ They are sure to interrogate the selection and the prize itself, rather than question their own blindness to global literature, rather than provide for American readers a needed opportunity to celebrate a major international writer. To them, at last, we can now say: congratulations, your long wait is over, you have your prize.”
Monique Truong, author, The Book of Salt
“A great lyricist is a poet, and a great poet is a lyricist, in that their words sing to us from the page as hymn, lullaby, anthem or dirge. I hope that the Nobel for Literature committee will continue to consider and award other songwriters whose oeuvre is defined by the anti-war, protest, and global peace movement. If Nina Simone was alive today, I would weep with joy if the Nobel for Literature had gone to her.
Dario Fo, the incendiary Italian playwright and recipient of the Nobel in Literature in 1997, past away on the day that the news about Dylan was announced. In the Italian press, this quote from Fo, back in 2001, is widely being cited: ‘Sarei proprio contento se fosse Bob Dylan. Purtroppo temo che non avverrà perché da sempre vige la regola che quando si fanno previsioni, non si avverano.’Here’s a rough translation: ‘I would be really happy if the Nobel Prize would go to Bob Dylan. Yet unfortunately I am afraid it is not going to happen: predictions never come true, as the rule goes.’ Fo would be happy indeed that on the day that he left us a rule was broken.”
Amy King, poet, The Missing Museum
“Bob Dylan now has a chance to do something truly great for literature: reject the Nobel Prize for Literature. He can take a stand and declare that fame and ease of consumption should not play a role in determining merit when it comes to focusing the public eye on one writer’s books. He can publicly admit that we don’t need another white guy status quo affirmation in a world full of writers of color penning their lives and idea8s in innovative ways for decades. He can turn this tremendous attention to the pages that have done complex work that even his most inspiring and motivational songs cannot achieve. Great literature is not easily consumed like pop songs that rhyme. Challenging the establishment and tackling the political through music is certainly worthy of awards and applause, which Dylan has received in spades.
But much of the greatest literature requires depth of thought, nuance and often shines a penetrating light on aspects of the world that are difficult to process like genocide and survival, on lives lived through sacrifice, obscurity and facing phobias and isms that threaten and transform individuals, to name a very few. Moreover great literature often requires time spent communing with words on pages, a very solitary (and as of late, increasingly unpopular) thing. At best, Dylan in the literary world has been known as a kind of pop poet. Poets and educators do not cite his poems to study in depth–or at all. Beyond, I cannot begin to list the number of poets whose life’s work has changed the ways we use language and shown the mainstream lives previously unfamiliar and silenced. The Nobel Prize Committee still has a chance to actually “redefine the boundaries of literature.” Please be brave, Dylan, and ask that they do exactly that.
In other news, Toni Morrison is up for the Nobel Prize in Music for her lyrics, including songs such as “Honey and Rue,” “Sweet Talk” and “Woman.Life.Song.”.”
Natalie Diaz poet, When My Brother Was an Aztec
“I didn’t grow up listening to Bob Dylan. On my Rez, it’s always been more about Bob Marley. I know that Bob Marley will never get a Nobel. And the reason the Nobel committee might give is because he was a song writer,but what they will mean is “he is still dangerous: by inciting resistance, by unifying the wrong kind of people, by being a black man, by turning the gun on the sheriff.”
Yes, I think music is poetic. Poetry was once music, is still music(al). Language, once spoken, even if you can’t hear it, is sonic. But I have only read the lyrics to songs I couldn’t hear the words to, mostly recently Rihanna’s “Work.” When was the last time you read song lyrics?
It seems to me that most academies want to pretend they have thought hard and felt hard about difficult things, but they are more and more often settling for fake and fast rigor. Maybe this is why the element of reading was taken out of the prize category this year. Maybe this is why we are having conversations about appropriation in writing: Don’t let the dangerous people write those dangerous stories. Let us write them. We can call it imagination and witness.
I’m not saying Dylan is not rigorous. I’m saying, Bob Marley will never win a Nobel. One is dangerous to the academy and one is not.
The academies want to pretend they are participating in art and literature that allows them to look deep into themselves, their power structures, their prejudices–really they’d rather look at themselves. Maybe this year the books written by women were all too rigorous for the academy, so they chose from all men, and still those men’s books were too rigorous. So they needed a break, from reading, from literature. So they poured some schnapps, put a record on…”
Danniel Schoonebeck, poet, American Barricade
“You’ll hear poems celebrated for their music, their rhythm, their cadence and timbre, but you will never live to see a poet or prose writer awarded the highest arts honor in the world in the category of Music. Why isn’t there a Nobel Prize for Music? I assume because they’d have to award it to a poet every year. Next year at Cannes they should give Jack Nicholson the Palme d’Or award for Best Movie and call up a bunch of screenwriters and directors for comment. Will they care? Of course not, because someone already gave them a truck full of money to make a movie and millions of people will pay to see it. I’m being surly, but that’s undeniably part of what the Nobel does for Literature: if it’s true Sweden was feeling bad about ignoring American literature for the last 23 years and decided to award the Nobel to Don Delillo this year, as they should have done, millions of Americans would be reading Underworld, Mao II, Libra, and White Noise within the next few weeks, during a time in this country when I can’t think of a single writer who even comes close to articulating American dread and paranoia with the same incisiveness as Delillo. He would also be translated into other (additional) languages all over the world and read by millions and millions of other readers. Instead of hearing Dylan’s name seven times on the radio yesterday—during which every Dylan scholar remarked that you can’t simply read his lyrics, you have to listen to the music—we would get to hear insane passages from Delillo’s books on the air. We would get to hear Don Delillo give a god damn Nobel speech within a month of the scariest election in American history. Will Bob Dylan even show up to the ceremony? Everyone already knows his records front to back, he’s already a household name all over the world, does this award do anything to effect any change whatsoever? Instead of seeing one of the greatest authors on the planet honored this year alongside the world’s greatest scientists, physicists, chemists, and peacemakers, we are celebrating the guy who creeped around in a Victoria’s Secret commercial and can’t tell the difference between hot and cold coffee. Imagine in 1957 if instead of giving Camus the Nobel Prize for Literature they just gave it to Frank Sinatra. William Faulkner? Who cares just give it to Elvis. Toni Morrison? I don’t know guys, does Keith Richards have a Nobel Prize for Literature yet? People keep telling me these are false equivalencies but are they? Has anyone actually read Tarantula? Here’s a quote from the bard himself on that masterpiece: “It was never my intention to write a book.” People also keep telling me this is a victory for the breakdown of genre. These same people live in a country where a tax-evading reality TV star and failed steak salesman is about an inch away from being the president. You remember in the 90s when Bob Dylan was playing the Grammys and that guy got arrested for storming the stage with SOY BOMB painted on his chest? Give that motherfucker a Nobel prize, that’s poetry. If he hasn’t done so already, Bob Dylan should turn down the award. Sartre did it, and at least that dude could really wail on an acoustic guitar.”