When I first learned that the Nobel Committee had selected Bob Dylan for the Literature Prize, my immediate reactions were contradictory. I was struck by what an odd choice it was and at the same time realised that it made a lot of sense too.
Then I tweeted the following statement:
In other news, George Harrison got Physics, Roy Orbison got Peace, Tom Petty got Chemistry, and Jeff Lynne got Economics.
I challenge you to find a better fit for each Wilbury.
The following morning, I spoke to Steve Austin on ABC radio Brisbane with a slightly more considered response. In the month and a bit that has since passed—a long period of non-communicado from Dylan to the Nobels before a somewhat grudging acceptance and a probable no-show at the ceremony—my initial reactions haven't changed much.
First of all, it's pretty clear rock and roll can kiss goodbye any vestige of rebelliousness it may have still been clinging to. Sorry, that goes for you punks as well.
Dylan's contribution to culture is unassailable. If you don't listen to his records, you'll know at least a few of his songs and you'll definitely know plenty of music, films, books, and other arts that he has directly influenced. This is not just popularity. Dylan fused a number of song traditions together into a mashup of American culture which proliferated across art forms throughout Western culture and beyond. Almost singlehandedly, he changed the course of two genres in one album (I'll let you decide which one).
Does that make him eligible for a literary prize, though?
I would argue his approach to songwriting has a literary bent to it. There are a great many songs I love that have great musicianship, but whose lyrics fall short. Some lyrics are just clunky. Others are downright appalling. A small number of songs I love have fine lyrics, but don't really have a whole lot to say. Rare are the songs that match great music with well-thought-out ideas, beautifully expressed: lyrics that can comfortably stand alone.
Dylan has done this. Not all the time (far from it, see 1969-1973), but consistently enough in a formidable body of work that spans decades. This is what is being celebrated here.
I've seen a few article links that apparently bemoan the decision of the Nobel Committee. At least that's what the headlines suggest. I haven't read much past the headlines because, frankly, I don't give a shit what some columnist at The Guardian or a novelist moonlighting for The New Yorker thinks the Nobel Committee should or shouldn't have done. Nor do I care whether Rolling Stone approves of their decision. But I guess armchair criticism and cheap point scoring is now the bullshit fuel of a hyperconnected world, even for the best mastheads, so what's the argument?
If you're whining the prize shouldn't have gone to a musician because it's literature and that means books, well, fuck you. What are you doing here reading this, anyway?
If you think it shouldn't have gone to Dylan because he's rich and famous and doesn't need any more accolades, you may have a point.
But pontificating on what should have happened is pointless and arrogant. It happened.
What all this aimless discussion and showy angst and instant opinionating should come down to is a pretty simple question: what are literary prizes for? For me, that question especially as it applies to this kind of 'lifetime achievement' award has two possible responses. Both are equally valid.
If the purpose of a literary prize is a form of 'activism' to shine a light on a writer whose work has been otherwise unfairly overlooked—if the intention is to correct a perceived wrong—then the choice of Dylan is almost insulting.
It is hard to imagine another living artist for whom a Nobel Laureate would have less impact—whether financially or critically—than Robert Zimmerman. This is a guy who couldn't be arsed rehearsing for a gig at the White House and out-cooled President Obama with little more than a nod by way of interaction. When the Nobel Committee couldn't get ahold of Dylan to see if he would even accept the award, it was so completely in character that I was amazed they hadn't anticipated it.
But a literary prize can have another purpose. It can broaden the perception of the art form it celebrates. It can redraw boundaries around what can be thought of as literature and inspire a reexamination of what it means and how it can be communicated and disseminated. Literature is not defined by its container.
In the meantime, I'm going to continue listening to Blood on the Tracks, knowing the inscrutable riddle at the heart of 'Tangled Up in Blue' can never be resolved. That's the point. And it's as good as anything I've read in a book.