The Swedish Academy, in its citation, while awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to the American musician Bob Dylan credited him with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
Yes, the general consensus is that Bob Dylan is a great musician, and probably one of the greatest.
While I may not share in the sentiment of his genius as an artist, this is not a critique of his musical abilities. But a slight bewilderment at the decision of the Nobel Committee to award Mr Robert Allen Zimmerman the Nobel Prize in Literature.
While the laureates for the Nobel Peace Prize have raised many an eyebrow, a lingering hope was that prize in literature remains just that -- a most exclusive prize for people whose contributions to language and literature have been life-ling endeavours.
And with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to a musician, an individual whose life-long works were anything but the pursuit of literature, the elevated meaning of the prize feels rather stained.
“But who are you to call what Bob Dylan created not literature?” I am asked.
A fan and lover of literature is a most simple reply. An admirer who knows that what Dylan has produced artistically falls short of its very strict definition, let alone be in the same ballpark as the works of previous winners like Gunter Grass, Orhan Pamuk, Doris Lessing and VS Naipaul. There are many more writers whose works dwarf Dylan’s. It makes me cringe to even write that because its apples and oranges. Never once would I argue for a Julian Barnes’ novel to win the Grammy Award for Best Record, and using the same line of reasoning, a Nobel Prize in Literature for Bob Dylan is laughable, and downright lazy on the part of a committee that thought this was a good idea.
Tim Stanley, in writing for The Telegraph, goes a step further and argues that it seems to be a dumbing down of culture, and that a world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize in Literature is a world that nominates Donald Trump for President. Harsh words, I must say, but I understand that annoyance behind it. This need to be so popular, so over-and-beyond the fringes that what we get out of, is the most insane.
Where do we draw the line? Would Chetan Bhagat for the Man Booker Prize be a step too far? He writes books, and more people in India read Bhagat more than they do Thayil! Should an actor or celebrity win a sporting award because he/she has been at the forefront of efforts to popularise and commercialise that sport?
The New York Times wrote that in choosing a popular musician for the literary world’s highest honour, the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, dramatically redefined the boundaries of literature, setting off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels.
And the answer is a resounding no. Song lyrics do not have the same artistic value as poetry and novels. Different art-forms require different aptitude and creative talent. The construction of characters and plots differs from what it takes to write a song.
“Isn’t all creative output literature?”
Not really, a music album is not literature, and a novel is not music. The fallacy of such a question and argument is that if everything is an entity, then nothing is.
Bob Dylan should be in contention for prizes with Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen. He has no business competing with the likes of Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo and Ian McEwan.