Prizes

Bob Dylan is the Surprise Winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature

By posted at 7:21 am on October 13, 2016 21

For years, Bob Dylan has been considered a longshot contender for the Nobel Prize. Nobel watchers have not taken the possibility of a Dylan win seriously, not because he isn’t a legendary talent, but because giving him the prize would be so out of character for a committee that has so often used the Nobel to bring a regional master to a global audience. A case can and certainly will be made that Dylan is as deserving as any other for something as arbitrary as a literary prize, but there is some disappointment in not bringing a lesser known talent to worldwide acclaim, let alone one whose primary medium is books.

covercoverThat said, as far as rock memoirs go, Dylan’s Chronicles is considered perhaps the best of the genre. The book is meant to be the first in a trilogy but there has been little in the way of firm news as to when the second and third volumes might appear. In 2012, Dylan told Rolling Stone, “Let’s hope [it happens].” Certainly, however, the committee did not have Chronicles in mind when it gave Dylan the prize. A new edition of Dylan’s collected lyrics is set to be released within the next month.

In 2009, in these pages, Andrew Saikali made a strong case.

Whole books have been written, whole careers launched, with discussion of the lyrics of Bob Dylan. But reading Bob Dylan and listening to Bob Dylan are two completely different experiences. And it’s his melodies, vocal phrasing and musical arrangements that lift these masterful words off the page, animating them, haunting them, imbuing them with mystery.

In 2010, Jim Santel explored the suddenly popular rock memoir genre, setting aside Chronicles as an exception “among the most persistently disappointing of literary subgenres.”

In 2011, Buzz Poole reflected on Dylan’s 70th birthday: “Lurking in everything Dylan has ever done, for better or worse, is the myth of America, its chameleon-like quality to be everything to everybody its greatest asset, permitting openness, not for the sake of change but because of its necessity.”

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21 Responses to “Bob Dylan is the Surprise Winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature”

  1. Jack M
    at 7:24 am on October 13, 2016

    Talk about a surprise.

  2. Anon
    at 9:21 am on October 13, 2016

    The author of this piece seems to imply that Dylan was given the prize in part because of the memoir he published in 2009 and not for the body of work he has created over the last 54 years. If that is so, if that is what the author of the piece is implying, than the author of this piece is so ignorant that no further comment is needed.

  3. toad
    at 9:28 am on October 13, 2016

    Anon, if your reading comprehension is so lacking that “Certainly, however, the committee did not have Chronicles in mind when it gave Dylan the prize.” means to you “Dylan was given the prize in part because of the memoir he published in 2009 and not for the body of work he has created over the last 54 years” then you are so ignorant that no further comment is needed.

  4. themba mabona
    at 9:48 am on October 13, 2016

    Hmmmm, feels like they’re dunking this award in a big, tepid pool of absolulte meaninglessness. Modiano was already quite a horrific choice back in 2014 and I was bored to death by the prospect of Murakami winning it this year. A safe bet for next year would be gooogle translate or smthng similarly original…. that’s the point, right, something unexpected and vaguely connected to literature…… for f***’s sake…

  5. Heather Curran
    at 12:28 pm on October 13, 2016

    Really wanted Thiong’o to win. Music as a body of literary (poetry) work, OK, but I have to say I shocked by this decision.

  6. steven augustine
    at 1:30 pm on October 13, 2016

    I stopped taking the Nobel Prize for Lit seriously when Pearl S. Buck won it. And that was before the year Snoop Dogg was the odds-on favorite.

  7. James Cappio
    at 3:26 pm on October 13, 2016

    Of course they didn’t give it to him for CHRONICLES. They gave it to him for TARANTULA.

  8. Dunbar Humbly
    at 4:04 pm on October 13, 2016

    It should’ve gone to the Sex Pistols.

  9. roger gathmann
    at 4:18 pm on October 13, 2016

    “… not bringing a lesser known talent to worldwide acclaim.” A pious wish, but I haven’t noticed a big surge in sales in America for Herta Muller or Elina Jelenik or Svelanta Alexievitch. If it isn’t English speaking, Americans rarely care. The whole awards system is very old school – it is an impulse that comes from getting a little gold star on your paper in kindergarten. I wish writers would get over thinking those gold stars are so important!

  10. priskill
    at 7:07 pm on October 13, 2016

    Sigh . . . . .

  11. minordilemma
    at 6:23 am on October 14, 2016

    While I love Dylan’s music and feel it is inseparable from any discussion of social change/development/unrest in the American 20th century, and while I also agree that songwriting is (of course) writing and that the best of it is akin to poetry, I don’t feel he deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature, for the reason that music, notably pop/rock/folk music, does not require anything of you. It only gives. Books make demands; they ignite your imagination and demand some measure of critical thought (some more than others). They engage the soul in a deeper way. Songwriting’s value is couched inextricably in the music composed for it, whereas novels, stories, poems all must sail on their own steam. This was meant to be a prize recognizing an important body of literature, not a back catalogue of pop songs or a singer’s perceived social value. Dylan is crucially important artistically, but not as a Nobel Laureate.

  12. Anon
    at 10:23 am on October 14, 2016

    “The people who think Bob Dylan does not deserve the Nobel have a very short-sighted view of history and don’t understand what the Nobel is about. The Nobel is about artists who have contributed to the politics of resistance. Dylan is as responsible for the last great freakout in American history, as responsible as anyone else. This is the Nobel’s way of nodding towards America and saying, remember what he said about the Weatherman. A symbolic thumb in the eye.” – Dr. Ilan Mitchell Smith, University of Toronto, Dean, Humanities Department.

  13. toad
    at 2:13 pm on October 14, 2016

    Anon

    “The Nobel is about artists who have contributed to the politics of resistance.”

    Nope. Here’s what the the Lit Nobel is about, from Nobel’s will: “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”

    Don Trump is responsible as anyone else for this current American freakout, should we give him a Literary Nobel for his tweets?

    The Nobel Prize in Literature is about “work” in “literature”. Bob Dylan, perhaps the greatest musician who ever lived, does not produce literature. Thousands of people around the world do. The committee marginalized their art by deciding none of them is worthy of this prize.

    The people who think Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel have a very short-sighted view of the future and don’t understand what literature is about.

  14. Heather Curran
    at 3:25 pm on October 14, 2016

    Like Shteyngart said: “reading books is hard”.

  15. Anon
    at 4:58 pm on October 14, 2016

    Toad: your name fits you.

  16. Mike
    at 10:37 am on October 16, 2016

    In one way, I do find Dr. Smith’s comments correct: this was indeed a symbolic thumb in the eye. From the comments I’ve read on other sites, many people, not just Americans, find this choice insulting. An entertainer being awarded one of the most prestigious awards in the world. He may have contributed to the American songbook, but I still find Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Duke Elllington, Ira Gershwin, Billie Holliday to be better than pretty much anything Dylan wrote.

    Since when has the Nobel been about artists contributing to the politics of resistance? I don’t think I’ve heard any of the past laureates being lauded for this. In what way did Alice Munro, for example, contribute to the politics of resistance? She was cited for being a contemporary master of the short story. Her stories are certainly Chekhovian in scope and universality.

    I agree with the editor. I find this choice to be disappointing in the extreme.

  17. steven augustine
    at 7:24 pm on October 17, 2016

    Well, but seriously: if I were Joni Mitchell, I’d be looking to punch someone over this.

  18. Ioana
    at 12:42 am on October 18, 2016

    “… not bringing a lesser known talent to worldwide acclaim.” A pious wish, but I haven’t noticed a big surge in sales in America for Herta Muller or Elina Jelenik or Svelanta Alexievitch. If it isn’t English speaking, Americans rarely care.”

    We do care here, though. US is undoubtedly a big nation, but then there’s the rest of us too. If a writer becomes more popular due to a Noble prize in America or not, doesn’t mean things are the same everywhere. I’m a true anglophile, but there’s life beyound UK and the US. In fact, if you look at this particular choice, Bob Dylan makes more sense when you have an outside perspective.

  19. Ioana
    at 12:44 am on October 18, 2016

    *beyond (pedantic me)

  20. toad
    at 9:52 am on October 18, 2016

    “Bob Dylan makes more sense when you have an outside perspective”

    To the contrary – check out Tim Parks’ article at the NYRB. The world is baffled by this because his popularity in the non-English world is due to his musicality. Nobody translates his lyrics into French/Chinese/Indian poetry books. So in the non-English world his lyrics are a very small part of his popularity/appeal.

  21. steven augustine
    at 4:02 pm on October 18, 2016

    @Toad

    “.. [Dylan’s] popularity in the non-English world is due to his musicality. ”

    Nah, not even that. Owing entirely to the power of American populist media (which engulf the planet), Dylan has become “The ’60s” and a symbol of “civil rights” and “freedom” and all that. I work with lots of non-native-English-speaking musicians (of all ages), and all the Dylan “fans” I’ve come across over here, without exception, cite Dylan and Joe Cocker (!), in the same breath, as cultural “heroes” (especially among Italians, strangely)! Laugh. Indicating that they’re not really *getting* Bob at all, who was sort of amazing between ’66 and ’76 and thereafter exchanged his near-genius for a wry wit and bafflingly-goofy metaphysics and rapidly-decaying vocals. It’s a rare “fan”, I find, over here, who even knows who Scarlet Rivera and Al Kooper are! What they know is that they like the notion of the ’60s and Dylan embodies it… I suspect the Swedes who voted Bob this trophy were actually voting that way… and for “freedom” and “civil rights” and all that. Had Hendrix lived, Dylan would probably be splitting the honors with him.

    But I really don’t get why so many (except the ones who get it) care… this Lit trophy, like so many Lit trophies, is *regularly* awarded for extra-literary reasons. On a literary level, it’s nearly meaningless. If a writer one admires happens to receive it, be glad he/she got the cash…. but… shrug.

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