Bob Dylan has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom award and he has won 11 Grammys. He's won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe and an honorary Pulitzer and the Polar Music Prize and dozens of other honors.
Should he win the Nobel Prize in Literature, too?
As we gear up for the announcement of the chosen laureate in early October, freelance arts writer Bill Wyman (not to be confused with the Rolling Stones bassist of the same name) is gunning for Bob. He's not the first—speculation involving Dylan's name has abounded for at least two years—but with an opinion piece in The New York Times, he has made himself perhaps the most visible and impassioned champion for the cause. (Dylan himself probably won't soon be pleading his case.) As he argues, Dylan's inestimable writing chops and largely unmatched social significance should make him a shoo-in for the prize:
Why isn’t the most vital of the artistic catalysts of those upheavals himself a front-runner for the prize? I’m referring of course to Bob Dylan, a fierce and uncompromising poet whose writing, 50 years on, still crackles with relevance. Mr. Dylan’s work remains utterly lacking in conventionality, moral sleight of hand, pop pabulum or sops to his audience. His lyricism is exquisite; his concerns and subjects are demonstrably timeless; and few poets of any era have seen their work bear more influence.
Also—more crudely—we have to act fast, because he might (gulp) die soon:
The Nobel Prize in Literature is not awarded posthumously, and Mr. Dylan, now in his 70s, has battled heart disease. Alfred Nobel’s will decreed that the prize should go to a writer with “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Why hasn’t Bob Dylan received one?
Wyman is correct to place Dylan in that small category of pop performers who could rightly be called poets. But he doesn't quite consider the nature of Dylan's craft: songwriting. Albums. Rock music. That's an altogether different vehicle than a poem—or, say, a novel or story collection—and as New York Magazine's Jody Rosen argued in a lengthy quibble with Wyman and others, Dylan's verses certainly "don't sit inert on a page"; nor are his songs "mere word-delivery systems":
.@hitsville Songwriting is a different form than poetry. BD's words don't sit inert on a page.— Jody Rosen (@jodyrosen) September 29, 2013
.@hitsville No, but you are suggesting that songs are mere word-delivery systems.— Jody Rosen (@jodyrosen) September 29, 2013
Which is to say, Dylan's songs are far more than the content of the lyric booklets that accompany his releases; his artistry is rather seamlessly wedded to his (now almost incomprehensibly) gravelly voice and loooong, streetched-out delivery. Think of those iconic choruses—"Iiii-diot wiiind," "Like a roooo-lling stone," "Stuuuu-ck-in-siiide-of-Mooo-bile-with-the-Memphis-Bluuuues-again"—and now try to imagine them as standalone poetry, without the melodies and vocal inflections and musical color. Doesn't work. Tarantula aside, Bob Dylan hasn't followed Leonard Cohen's path in supplementing his records with books of poetry, and to award him the Nobel would be to ignore the power of the medium he has made his life's work. As a peace anthem, for instance, "Blowin' in the Wind" simply isn't as stirring without the sing-song-y melody that suits it to protests and antiwar gatherings.
Plus, as Kevin Canfield noted on Salon in 2011, Dylan is simply too famous and has an ample supply of awards (see above) to keep him warm already. By contrast, the Nobel committee has in recent years focused on bringing attention to lesser-known talent:
Though the panel has recently cited known quantities like V.S. Naipaul (’01), J.M Coetzee (’03) and, last year, Mario Vargas Llosa, the prize often goes to a lesser-known writer. Since 2000, the list of laureates has included Chinese novelist Gao Xingjian (2000), Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek (’04) and French novelist J.M.G. Le Clezio (’08). Even Swedish Academy members have been known to chafe at the committee’s self-conscious bias for the unconventional; one panelist quit the Academy in protest of the prize awarded to Jelinek, describing her prose as ”a mass of text shoveled together, without artistic structure.” If voters want an avant-gardist, they won’t be looking Dylan’s way.
What would awarding Dylan the Nobel Prize even accomplish, anyway? Draw some deserved attention to a woefully under-recognized artist? Feed his sorely battered ego? It's unclear what the end goal is here.
At 72, Dylan is old and cranky and, frankly, has probably had enough of award ceremonies for one lifetime, especially while he's still trying to focus on his art. Let's just let him be for once instead of making him sit through another ceremony.
All photos: Associated Press
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.