Sunday, October 16, 2016

Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

We are quite used to the idea that the Nobel Peace Prize occasionally goes to politicians who, whatever their good intentions, have in fact failed to produce peace (e.g., Woodrow Wilson in 1919, Barack Obama in 2009, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos this year). So my pre-programmed response to the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize is just a largely disinterested shrug. But awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan definitely got my attention!

Writing in the New York Times a few days back (October 13), journalist Anna North made a surprisingly strong argument against Dylan's prize:

Yes, Mr. Dylan is a brilliant lyricist. ... But Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer.

My immediate reaction would be to dismiss that as the typical strategy of any guild to restrict its membership. Poetry pre-dates novels not by centuries but by millennia, and almost certainly much of the ancient poetry we now study as literature originated as song. So what's her point?

She does actually have a serious point well worth considering:

As reading declines around the world, literary prizes are more important than ever. A big prize means a jump in sales and readership even for a well-known writer. But more than that, 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.

Popular music is such an endeavor too, but, for the most part, it already receives the recognition it deserves. ... Bob Dylan does not need a Nobel Prize in Literature, but literature needs a Nobel Prize.

She is correct, of course, that reading as a meaningful human activity is threatened by our contemporary lifestyle and that literary prizes provide an important affirmation of writing, whereas popular music is already richly recognized and rewarded in our society.

Perhaps the optimal solution would be to create multiple prizes for different categories of literature - including specifically categories of great contemporary significance, such as musical lyrics and theatrical screenplays. Of course, that undoubtedly would cause continued controversies about which new categories to add!

All that having been said, I believe Bob Dylan is a great musician and "author" and is eminently deserving of the Nobel Prize. Of course, many other authors of what we more conventionally have come to regard as "literature" may also deserve a prize. But just one gets to win.

Needless to say, I come at this as an aging "Baby Boomer," with the inevitable prejudice of my generation for its distinctive music. In the 1960s many of us young "Boomers" lived very modestly on meager resources, but were willing to spend on a good stereo, which we recognized as a necessary means to share in the music which -- more than politics - came closest to defining and unifying our generation. In honoring Bob Dylan, the Nobel Committee is also acknowledging the historical and social significance of my generation's musical odyssey. And that too deserves recognition.

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