Does A Songwriter Deserve A Nobel Prize For Literature


The Nobel Prize is widely accepted as the most prestigious award in the world. To win it is to be recognized as the globe’s most noteworthy figures in the likes of chemistry, physics, and literature. Instead, 2016’s latter prize was given to Bob Dylan.

The announcement was met with immediate and widespread scorn, but not for Dylan’s lack of talent. In 2012, the iconically voiced musician released his 35th album to near universal acclaim, an unparalleled feat for someone boasting such a long career. But the fact that 100 percent of 2016’s Nobel laureates were men, combined with the upset of giving a songwriter an award typically presented to novelists, did nothing to dilute the shock value of it all. Even Dylan was unable to formulate a response over a week after being announced as the $900,000 prize winner.

“It’s another white guy,” CU Denver English major Diana Court said. “He wrote a few influential lyrics, but to chose him over all of the possible novelists, poets, and playwrights?”

Court’s analysis is representative of much of the criticism facing Dylan’s newest accolade. People are less upset with his winning than with those who lost. Writers like Japan’s Haruki Murakami, Kenya’s Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and Syria’s Adonis have long been rumored to man the ranks of the Nobel shortlist, and Dylan’s victory over such a crowd evoked powerful skepticism. When Charlotte Higgins, a Guardian journalist, informed author Margaret Atwood of the singer’s new Laureate status, her response made international headlines. “‘For what?’ [Atwood] says, aspirating the word ‘what’ with devastating effect,” Higgins said.

Alex Sheppard, writer for New Republic, had long maintained a streak of predicting Nobel winners. A week before the Dylan announcement, Sheppard published an article titled, “Who Will Win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature?” The article’s kickhead? “Not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure.”

“I assumed that the Swedish Academy took itself a lot more seriously than it apparently does,” said Sheppard.

An alternative narrative argues that the Nobel committee was long overdue to expand their narrow definition of literature. Songwriter Roseanne Cash—daughter of Johnny Cash—said she was overwhelmed by the response she received from the music community the day of the announcement. “Finally, he gets recognized in this way that equates songwriting with great literature,” Cash said. “I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, because I also write prose, ‘Oh, you’re also a real writer.’ It’s so offensive. Like songwriting doesn’t require the same discipline.”

Dylan is also the first American Literature Laureate since Toni Morrison’s 1993 win. Setting aside all arguments of genre and use value, Dylan’s work decided the trajectory of the American musical tradition and has been a powerful artistic influence for the last 50 years.

Bob Dylan’s place among the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemmingway, Alice Munro, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez might forever remain contentious, but the enduring influence of his work at least gives him equal name recognizability.

Taylor Kirby
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