Bob Dylan wins the Nobel for Literature – But what it “Literature”?

13 Oct

The Nobel prize in literature is a much-anticipated event for book nuts everywhere – it is a highly prestigious award, meant (we assume) to celebrate the noteworthy achievements of literary artists.  It is an opportunity to advocate and recognize tremendous works of the written word.

This year’s winner has caused no small amount of controversy.  Bob Dylan, beloved and monumental American folk musician, has been awarded the prize, for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.  Poetic expressions?  Has there ever been a more wishy-washy phrase?

Don’t get me wrong, Dylan is great – I don’t think anyone would disagree, especially in America.  But is he a writer?  Is he participating in literature?  This seems to be the root question – how does the Nobel committee define literature?  When did songwriting become a category alongside poetry, drama, and prose?

Today, it seems.

Here’s where the Dylan selection rubs me wrong.  Awards of artistic achievement that specifically recognize a particular field should go to participants of that field.  The field in question for this award is literature.  Songwriting, however, is part of the field of “music.” A songwriter is pursuing a distinct art-form; a sum of parts that includes – even relies on – the music. The craft, context, execution, it’s unique to that art. Lyrics are a component of the music, written in compliment.  They are not, in the sense of literary pursuit, poetry.  Because poetry is also a distinct art-form, with its own craft, context, and execution.

Sure, song lyrics can be “poetic”, and in a cultural sense, there is often the argument that song lyrics are the “new” poetry (as though poetry itself is not alive and well). In the sense of the role that they play in society, it’s a reasonable argument. But in the sense of how each is conceptualized, created, perpetuated, and experienced, they are quite different.  Music is not simply poetry with musical accompaniment – it’s a pursuit whole unto itself, with its own approaches and sensibilities and expectations.  We can philosophize about overlap, but if artistic categories are to have any meaning, it must be assumed that music is music, and literature is literature.  And different arts require different skills, sensibilities, intentions, tools.

Dylan himself proves this.  In 1971, he published Tarantula, a book of experimental prose-poetry, his first work of original and explicitly literary written art.  And it was panned.  Wholly unsuccessful.  People were not into it.  It seems being an amazing, groundbreaking musician and songwriter does not, in fact, translate into being a good poet.  And this is the point.  Poetry is a unique art, and poets panticipate in a unique, culturally-defined field.  To give the Literature prize to a songwriter feels like a slight to all of the incredible working writers of the world. To my mind it undermines the prize’s purpose – which is to recognize, celebrate, and advocate for the best literary work. And this is an important function.  Literature needs its champions.

I’m rambling.  But the reason I question the Dylan decision is simple – music is not literature. It is a different art.  Just as a movie is not a play, even though they both have actors, and an opera is not a pop concert, even though they both have music. The fact that lyrics can be poetic ignores the cultural context, the artistic intention and process, the entire experience.  We can categorize after the fact, “repackage” lyrics as poems – but artistic intention should matter in a prestigious international prize. I mean, I could arrange the incoherent babble of a current U.S. presidential candidate into something like poetry, but it wouldn’t make Trump a poet. Separating the lyrics from a song doesn’t turn them into literature, at least not in the sense that writers actively seek to create and participate in those arts.

Literature is a vital sphere of our cultural life, and these awards are meant to celebrate it, infuse it with life, and raise it to the public’s attention. There are major literary talents in the world right now, artists who have broken ground and excelled in the arts of literature. Dylan is an artist of tremendous talent and importance, and deserves plenty of recognition – in his own field.  He revitalized and transformed music. Not literature, not poetry. And the fact remains that this is supposed to be a literature prize.  If it is to become a “prize for any sort of significant cultural contribution”, then they should rename it.

I know I probably sound like a stick in the mud.  I am usually all for expanding definitions and defying tradition.  I think music is a close sibling to poetry, and can achieve similar things, and there is certainly poetry to be found within songwriting.  But I’m foremost an advocate for the written word in all of its vital, under-appreciated arts – and that is also the supposed function of these awards.  Dylan has been a heavy influence on culture, but he was making music, not literature. I don’t fault the judges for giving weight to Dylan’s general influence, or even in seeing the beauty of his words. But these prizes are an opportunity to raise up important achievements specifically in literature. This feels like an opportunity that has been missed.

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