This week, Ladbrokes announced music legend Bob Dylan as the controversial favourite for the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature, although he was pipped to the post by Tomas Tranströmer. In Write Now, Luiza Sauma argues that Dylan was long ago "kidnapped" by the literary world...
As Bob Dylan sang, on his 1975 song Clothes Line Saga, “Have you heard the news?”
The news earlier this week was that ol’ Robert Zimmerman – the greatest lyricist of the 20th century – was the favourite to win this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, ahead of Haruki Murakami, Thomas Pynchon and Philip “I’ve stopped reading fiction” Roth. In fact, today it was announced that it went to the poet Tomas Tranströmer.
Now, I love Bob Dylan as much as the next guy – I’ve got the albums, I’ve seen the documentaries, I’ve read the books, listened to the radio show and had the inappropriate fantasies about going back to 1964 and being his chief groupie – but as LL Cool J might put it: “Say what?”
The times they are a-changing, indeed; to the extent that several members of Nobel panel – the ones who nominated Dylan – decided that “literature” doesn’t just have to be words on a page, but can also include the lyrics of a song. Whatever next? Will Tinie Tempah win the Booker? Will a cat win Crufts, because it looks a bit like a dog?
This is the crux of the matter: Bob Dylan is a musician who looks a bit like a writer. He even wrote a very good book, Chronicles: Volume One, which covers his 1960s folk scene breakthrough with more verve and imagination than most of the debut novels I’ve read in the past year. But one book does not a Nobel Laureate make.
Bob Dylan, unlike the other great lyricists of the last 100 years, has long been taken into the literature world’s bosom. The literary establishment kidnapped him and elected him as one of their own – as if calling him a writer made him superior to his musical peers. Dozens of academic books have been written about Dylan, by scholars usually preoccupied with the likes of Keats, Shelley and Coleridge.
A couple of years ago I attended a lecture by the world’s preeminent, self-appointed Bob Dylan scholar. (If you’re a big Dylan fan, you know the one.) It was a disappointing experience, largely because he was not at all interested in the folk and blues roots of Dylan’s lyricism – and said as much – but more interested in meticulously unravelling the meaning behind Just Like a Woman with fusty academic rigour. It seemed the exact opposite of Dylan’s proto-punk, don’t-give-a-damn attitude in 1966, when that song was released.
The great thing about popular music is its anti-intellectualism, its accessibility – that’s why it makes more money than literary fiction. But music’s commercialism does not make it, as a whole, inferior to the ivory tower of literature – they are different art forms, made for different reasons.
And this may sound strange, coming from someone who loves literature, writing a literary column, but Bob Dylan needs a Nobel Prize like Oprah Winfrey needs another billion dollars. He does not need the literary world’s validation; he is much too good a songwriter for that.
Give it to Philip Roth before he croaks, for goodness’ sake.
More Write Now:
Writing and running
Main image: Typewriter of harry.f, available under a CC BY-NC license.
Bob Dylan (Bring it All Back Home Sessions) by ky_olsen, available under a CC BY 2.0 license.