News is out that Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. That’s right. Don’t adjust your computer. Bob Dylan. Literature. No fooling. I’m not having you on. If I were going to make something up I’d come up with something more believable than this.
Something is blowing in the wind in Stockholm. But it’s hard to say just what. Perhaps the Nobel judges tucked into a case of tainted cream of mushroom soup, or some gone-off pickled herring.
But it doesn’t matter. The Nobel prizes and the people who award them, save for some coherence in the physics, chemistry, and medicine categories, have been risible for at least the last couple of decades. After all, the Peace Prize has been awarded to people who’ve done nothing to promote peace — Barack Obama — as well as to people who’ve actively undermined it — Yasser Arafat. Even Al Gore, whose personal carbon footprint is large enough to be seen with the naked eye from the closer planets, was given the award for banging on incoherently about global warming (and turning a buck or two doing it — which he needs to pay the enormous power bill at his Nashville home).
Of late the literature prize has mostly been awarded to obscure leftist writers known largely to even more obscure leftist academics and to members of their immediate family. And you could design a pretty good literature curriculum around very fine writers who have not won the Nobel. In the early years, the prize managed to avoid such as Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, and Anton Chekhov. Occasionally a writer of real merit sneaks through — see V.S. Naipaul, 2001 — but it’s rare. And rarer as the years go by. William Faulkner and T.S. Eliot were way back there.
The 18 obscure academics who make up the Swedish Academy, which awards the literature prize, say they chose Dylan this year because he’s really a poet, and his song lyrics are profound and amount to literature. See how limited you are, all you folks who considered Dylan just a folk, rock, singer and occasional crooner. He’s also W. H. Auden with a silly hat and a terrible voice. (By the way, Auden never won the prize either).
Songs usually require music and a voice to fill out their meaning. You don’t just read them on a page. But with Dylan I’m willing to give his voice a pass. I won’t try to convince you that Bob Dylan in full throat sounds worse than a tomcat being dragged through a hedge backwards. But honesty prevents me from saying that he sounds any better either. Of course this is a matter of taste, and beside the point the Academy is making.
The New York Times quotes Sara Danius, a literary scholar and permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, as comparing Dylan’s song lyrics to Homer’s poetry. I guess she’ll now be filing, “Sing, oh muse, of the rage of Achilles” on the same shelf with, “like a rolling stone,” and, “the times they are a-changing.” For a couple of more krona she’ll throw in, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Deep stuff.
Reaction to this quirky choice, of course, was mixed. And perhaps reaction was what the Academy members, weary of their well-deserved obscurity, were shooting for. Barack Obama, not notably literary, tweeted his congratulations to Dylan, calling him “one of my favorite poets.” (I wonder who the others are.) “Great Choice,” said novelist and songwriter Salman Rushdie, calling Dylan “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition.”
Others have a different view. Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano sniffed, “Real writers” aren’t pleased. Satirical writer Gary Shteyngart hit about the right level of snark with, “I totally get the Nobel Committee. Reading books is hard.”
But the prize for the most barbed negative reaction goes to Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh, who called the choice “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” Steady on, Irvine. That’s unkind. Irvine must have been having a bad day when the news reached him. But I have to admit to laughing at Irvine’s below-the-belt punch, and conceding that the pick did have about it the hint of PBS Pledge Week.
I’m not sure if this trend of giving literary prizes to singers and songwriters will catch on. And I don’t suppose it matters all that much. I’ll take it seriously, though, if Willie Nelson wins the literature prize next year.