Things Have Changed: Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize Stirs Debate

This past week, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, the first American recipient of the award since 1993. By receiving the award, Dylan has stirred up a variety of responses in the literary world. Some reacted in dismay, claiming the award should not have been given to someone whose only "literary works" are song lyrics.

On the other hand, some were happy that someone so universally appealing was finally acknowledged. Arguments both for and against Dylan’s right to receive the award are rooted in the ambiguity of what exactly qualifies a writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In Lauren Miller's article, “Bob Dylan’s Nobel Win Suggests the Swedish Academy is A-changin,” on Slate, she argues that the giving of the Nobel Prize to Dylan is problematic not in the fact that he is a musician, but because it is giving the award to a person whose artistic brilliance has already been acknowledged enough.

In doing so, the Swedish Academy is playing on a concept that is fundamentally anti-literary; as “anything as rich and manifold as the art made from written words can only be diminished by this obsession with rankings and supremacy.” Still, the fact remains that the Nobel Prize does exist as a stamp of literary prestige, and Dylan being awarded the prize as a person who is first and foremost a musician challenges what exactly the award defines as being “great literature.”

Additionally, critics have found issue not with whom the award was given to, but with whom it was not. In an op-ed in the New York Times, journalist and author Anne North criticized the Academy’s decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to a man that is already internationally recognized in another field, and in doing so, the Academy has failed to award a written author.

North's point is validated by the fact that she does not deny the fact that Dylan is a brilliant lyricist; rather, she states that in an age of literary decline, “awarding the Nobel to a novelist or a poet is a way of affirming that fiction and poetry still matter, that they are crucial human endeavors worthy of international recognition.” The question remains, however, as to whether or not the imposition of poetry in a musical form reaffirms the existence of poetry in popular culture, or denounces it.

Supporters of Dylan’s win believe that his brilliant lyrics make him more than deserving of the award, due to the ways that his words hold a near universal meaning.

“Although Dylan was predominantly a songwriter when listening to the album The Times They Are a-Changing, one quickly realizes that music only serves as a backdrop," Pitzer student Avi Kolbrener PZ '18 commented. "Dylan used his music as a medium to broadcast his lasting commentary on war, relationships, capitalism, and racism in format that was incredibly in tune with the era he was writing about.”

A piece in the New Yorker released after the win vouched for Dylan’s social impact by having individuals describe their personal relationship with Dylan’s lyrics.

In an interview with TSL, Scripps professor and novelist Adam Novy commented on the phenomena, finding it “really hard to quantify what makes art great, because, on one hand, you want it to have a lot of social meaning, but the artist has to have some control over the social meaning."

Novy finds this can be a difficult balance for artists to manage, where "some things are full of social meaning, but the artist wasn’t in charge of them, so they’re kind of embarrassed."

While Dylan's work navigates this artistic balance well, Novy is not convinced that merits his being award the Nobel Prize in Literature.

"I know that Bob Dylan was more in control of the social meaning in work than almost any of his peers. But I still don’t know if that makes it literature,” he said. 

The fact that Dylan’s poetry has been confined to his music complicates the issue of whether or not his social impact is literary. Novy pointed to other musicians like Prince or David Bowie, “really significant figures in terms of the world and the possibilities that they created," who were not considered for this literary award. While both of these late performers were "significant figures of the end of the twentieth-century," in their musical contributions and social impact, their work is not often been considered literature.