Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize Isn't About Music

The Swedish Academy hasn’t redefined “literature.” It’s simply praised the written byproduct of a musical career.

Bob Dylan in concert, 1986
Bob Dylan in concert, 1986 (Nick Ut / AP )

The Swedish Academy’s official bibliography for Bob Dylan, recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, begins with the category “Works in English.” The first listed entry is the Bob Dylan Song Book, a 1965 collection of sheet music and lyrics, and the last is If Not For You, a little-noticed 2016 children’s book that that illustrated the lyrics of a 1970 Dylan song. His self-repudiated 1971 prose collection Tarantula and 2004 memoir Chronicles, Volume One are in there, too.

So “works,” in this context, means books. They’re listed before the albums that provided the lyrics that make up many of those Dylan books—the albums whose music, in the Nobel Committee’s word, gave Dylan “the status of an icon.”

Handwringing about “what is literature?” seems inevitable after the announcement that a rock star has taken the global writing community’s biggest award. But no great existential crisis is needed. The Nobel Committee could have decided that with this prize it wanted to expand the definition of “literature” to include recorded music, a hugely influential and relatively young art form that doesn’t have an award of Nobel-like prestige dedicated to it. But it seems to have declined to do so. Dylan is winning 8 million kronor ($932,786) for his words as they are written and not sung—affording him a wild degree of praise for something that is not the main achievement of his career.

After this morning’s announcement, an interviewer put to the Nobel Permanent Secretary Sara Danius the notion that because Dylan isn’t known for novels or traditional poetry, the committee has “widened the horizon” of the literature prize. Darius pushed back:

Well, it may look that way. But really, we haven’t, in a way. If you look back, far back, 2,500 years or so ago, you discover Homer and Sappho. And they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, they were meant to be performed, often together with instruments. It’s the same way with Bob Dylan. But we still read Homer and Sappho and we enjoy it. And same thing with Bob Dylan. He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the grand English poetic tradition.

“He can be read and should be read.” With those words, Darius is advocating for people to turn off their speakers and pick up a copy of Bob Dylan’s Lyrics tomes, complete collections of his words that have come out in various editions since 1985. She also mentioned that people may want to listen to Blonde on Blonde as an entrypoint. But listening is not what this award is about.

There’s little that’s inherently controversial about praising words originally meant for vocal delivery. Playwrights have won the Nobel Prize for Literature before. But in an era when songwriting and song performance and song recording are tied together, when many musicians’ literary voices are first received via their literal voices, lyrics alone should inevitably have a hard time competing with “pure” poetry or prose. They’re trying to accomplish different things. Bob Dylan is not exempt from this idea, even though he’s spawned an industry of college English-department analysis. Here’s Michiko Kakutani 31 years ago in a generally positive New York Times review of Dylan’s Lyrics 1962-1985:

Simply reading a song, we miss the ways in which the words interact with the music—how, say, the sardonic lyrics to many of the songs on ''Highway 61 Revisited'' counterpoint the upbeat, even exuberant tracks - and we are deprived, as well, of the point of view supplied by Mr. Dylan's raw, insistent inflections and distinctive phrasings. Numbers like ''Lay, Lady, Lay,'' ''Blowin' in the Wind'' and even ''Like a Rolling Stone'' feel considerably more trite as prose poems than as songs, and many of Mr. Dylan's weaker efforts —''New Pony,'' say, or ''Emotionally Yours''—simply collapse into pretentious posturing when separated from their propulsive tracks, which at least helped to endow them with a modicum of conviction on the records.

The Nobel Committee would seem to disagree with Kakutani. Or rather, perhaps, it’s asserting that even with the inherent limitations of written lyrics, Dylan’s still rate as so good as to deserve recognition. And that is, make no mistake, huge recognition. Today’s award says that a byproduct of Dylan’s main job is as good or better than the life’s work of Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, Adonis, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or so many other authors theoretically in contention. His worthiness for that honor cannot be determined by doing what his fans most enjoy doing, hearing a Bob Dylan song.