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Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, undermines the work of esteemed authors

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Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, undermines the work of esteemed authors

Caroline Guthrie, Contributing Writer

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The Swedish Academy surprised many on Oct. 13 with the announcement that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. As a well-known singer-songwriter, Dylan hardly counts as an author of literature. In my opinion, the value of novels and literary texts is much greater than the value of song lyrics.

The definition of literature, “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit,” or “books and writings published on a particular subject,” does not apply to lyrics of songs. Although sometimes insightful, songs do not compare to the complexity and longevity of books or literary texts. Literature is composed of themes and characters that allow readers to understand the world around them, relating them to ideas and people in their own lives. Although a song might accomplish the goal of relating to many people, it does not compare to the depth a book contains.

Dylan now sits alongside the other winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, one of them being Toni Morrison. Known for her dense novels composed of epic themes and complex characters, Morrison has established herself as a revered writer. Her novel “Beloved” continues to be read and taught in high schools around the United States, and even became a movie in 1998. Her books exemplify the hard work of a writer who wants to share stories and teach lessons through books. Singer-songwriters, specifically Dylan, do not deserve to be categorized under the same award as writers such as Morrison.

Although Dylan wrote poetry and published a memoir, his song lyrics earned him his star status. The poems and memoir represent a subset of his singing career; his lyrics are the essence of his fame and writings. If the Nobel Prize in Literature rewards more music artists, the definition of literature would have to change. The work of singer-songwriters will never compare to the work of authors of books.

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12 Responses to “Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, undermines the work of esteemed authors”

  1. David Lilker on October 29th, 2016 12:49 am

    Dylan’s Nobel Prize is well deserved, and also a bold move by the Nobel committee. He has done more to revolutionize songwriting than anyone in the past century. Moreover, Dylan has had more influence on the popular culture both nationally and globally than virtually any Nobel-winning author you care to name. Too often, the Nobel committee selects an esteemed novelist whose readership is limited to the elite of their nation. Dylan is a fine choice, regardless of the mewling of a few snobbish academics.

  2. David Trezise on October 29th, 2016 1:38 am

    Is the author a moron? Does she really think that Dylan’s lyrics do not qualify as literature? Isn’t poetry a subset of literature? Has the author ever paid attention to, for example, “Visions of Johanna” or “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” or “Forever Young” or “The Changing of the Guard”? The fact that these magnificent poetic works are also set to music and sung only enhances the beauty of the lyrics. Nasty lady, indeed.

  3. Lupie on October 29th, 2016 4:08 am

    I think you need to listen and read more of Bob Dylan’s work

    All of of the qualities you state literature should have are contained in his lyrics.

    His music and message is epic and meaningful and transcends.

  4. Greg Salerno on October 29th, 2016 5:21 am

    Well Caroline, apparently you are not a big Bob fan. Nor do you understand the meaning of literature as you quote it in your essay. Throughout history songs have accomplished precisely what you say Dylan’s songs do not. Indeed, Bob revived a literary tradition that was probably deminished around the time the printing press came along. No matter, Bob’s songs will endure. The times they are a changing,


  5. James Patrick Johnson on October 29th, 2016 11:32 am

    The Swedish Academy passes over many, many deserving writers every year. This year they may have made an unorthodox choice but it’s not undeserved in any way. Dylan is the only living artist whose words have become a lexicon unto themselves. They are universally known, widely and frequently quoted, and span the vastness of the human experience. It is absolutely wrong to declare he is unworthy of the Nobel Prize.

  6. Mark Cowan-Aston on October 30th, 2016 6:35 am

    This would all be true, if one was a member of the closed minded, pompous, literature elite who think you have to be a) obscure, b) virtually unreadable c) a citizen of a third world country (this is not completely correct but largely correct), d) ethnicity other than Anglo Saxon or e) a reformer, agitator or protester.

    So few Nobel winners in the history of the award have generated such public discourse, and in the process brought literature to the front of the public mindset that Dylan’s award. Usually when an award is made, the elite clink champagne glasses with each other knowing the “common man” will never be exposed to the high art, and a few days later nothing more is heard of the writer. Ever. Go back through the list of winners; this is true in probably 90% of them.

    Right now, the whole world is talking about literature because Dylan has won the Nobel. No other laureate in memory has generated such discussion, such passion and such emotion as this one. As Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Literature needs to be talked about, and Dylan’s award has created an unprecedented discourse around literature that the overwhelming majority of previous winners have failed to create, and that all current and aspiring authors will benefit from and be grateful for. He never once asked for the award, never personally campaigned for it, never asked anyone to nominate him. The same committee that awarded Odysses Elytis, Czeslaw Milosz, Naguib Mahfouz and Nadine Gordimer (who????) awarded the Nobel to Dylan; have they been right in every instance before now? A “Yes” answer is extremely disparaging of the learned members of the Committee.

    A group that is clearly eminently qualified and capable in making a decision, that has been generally commended for its decisions in the past, hasn’t got it wrong. It has, perhaps, rattled the cages of the literature elite who intellectually place themselves above the common man, and given the award to Dylan in a show of progressive thinking, and even courage.

    I suspect that the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature will fill the kinds of conservative expectation that was the case before Dylan’s award, and that his or her award will be forgotten within days of the announcement. Whatever the world thinks, though, like it or not, the decision has been made. I’ve always thought that it is a sound idea to be a fan of the inevitable! As many, (I think actually more) people have applauded this decision than have not, and while popular numbers do not always make something right, in this case they do tell a story.

  7. Ellis Bell on October 30th, 2016 7:02 am

    You’re correct about the differences between conventional literature and the lyrics that accompany songs.

    But this isn’t about changing the lines between those things: this is about one individual whose work transcended those lines.

    I don’t believe the committee is saying that the prize is now open to writers of song lyrics; they are saying that this particular writer of song lyrics has achieved something that is worthy of the Nobel Prize in literature. And they’re right. Shakespeare was not an “author of books,” either, but rather a writer of popular entertainments. Surely his place in the western canon is the most secure, more even than Goethe, Chaucer, maybe even Dante. Surely a living Shakespeare would be deserving of a Nobel Prize.

    A colleague and I were speaking the other day about Dylan’s Nobel. She said she only was aware of one of his songs: “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I asked her if she had heard “To Make You Feel My Love,” or “Wagon Wheel,” or “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door;” I showed her how far one had to read into a random newspaper before one finds something like “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows;” I asked her if she watched music videos, which Dylan de facto invented with “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The effect is not dissimilar from that of the man seeing Hamlet for the first time and being underwhelmed by what he considered nothing but a series of cliches and popular sayings.

    Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel prize and has earned it and it has been awarded to him. Next year, it will likely be given to a more conventional writer. Unless someone comes along in the next twelve months and achieves what Dylan has achieved. But such a figure would be not only another Dylan, but another Da Vinci, another Shakespeare, another Goethe.

  8. Kevin Roberts on October 30th, 2016 7:15 am

    This reminds me of the senseless debates between students in my day: which was more important? biology or physics?

  9. Chris Harris on October 30th, 2016 8:03 am

    The notion that this is going to open some kind of floodgate of songwriters being similarly recognized is totally misbegotten. It fails to recognize the unique talent that Dylan has, and, also, to paraphrase the article, the “hard work” from Dylan. His canon is vast.

  10. hans altena on October 30th, 2016 8:58 am

    Read Joyce Chamber Music, poems with a simplicity and musicality that stands in stark contrast with his so called difficult books which I adore, one of them being Finnegans wake, a book that has to be read aloud, otherwise you won’t understand or get the many layers, it’s all belonging to his corpus of literary work. What possesses you to discard the hard work Dylan put into elevating song writing? I find quite as much deep stories and mystifying characters in his best poems as in some of the beautiful books of Thomas Pynchon and Delillo, who would have deserved the Nobel as well. I as a writer am not afraid of this extending of the boundaries, it serves literature well to change and renew. A lot of novels nowadays are boring elegies of bourgeouis suffering, political correct defenses of the underclasses or just plot directed detetives in disguise, only seldom do they reach the spiritual depth of Dylan’s novels in song form. And ourmodern poetry? Intelletual wordplay that has etended to far from the well, the song. and only selom has the power to make you feel everything in one moment. Dylan has the ability to let time dissolve, disparate things make connection and open our eyes nd ears, and our minds… Go ask Delillo what he thinks of it, he likes Dylan himself and sees no danger in him for literature, I would say he even has felt the influence of Dylan, just like Dylan has felt the influence of many writers. Poor you…

  11. Richard Keys on October 30th, 2016 4:56 pm

    The term “Literature” does not only apply to books. By the logic of this article, poems are not literature, either. Strange.

  12. Larry Nicholson on October 30th, 2016 5:37 pm

    As with anything in the creative realm, you’ll get disagreement on the merits of a work, all the work and the work-maker. The Nobel is awarded by committee and clearly throughout its existence has awarded the literary prize to writers for their amassed body of work as opposed to a work appearing near the annual selection time. Some writers have been selected after very little published material. Personally, I’m delighted at Dylan’s selection and I believe its reflective of 50 years of his achieving the very things the articles author attributes to “writers.” I think it more a type of envy or snobbery to suggest that Dylan’s work doesn’t require hard work, isn’t deep and doesnt have epic themes and characters to reach one about the world. Clearly the writer isn’t familiar with Dylan’s immense body of work. His work is taught as part of curriculum around the world. I challenge anyone calling themselves a writer to try and compose a song of quality, good songs don’t write themselves.

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Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, undermines the work of esteemed authors