“Bob is not authentic at all,” Joni Mitchell told The Los Angeles Times in 2010, referring, of course, to Bob Dylan. “He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.”
Mitchell was giving a particularly acidic summary of what’s become conventional wisdom about the great boomer bard. A gentler term often used about Dylan’s relationship to originality is “magpie.” Here’s The New York Times’ Jon Pareles writing about plagiarism accusations against Dylan’s Love and Theft in 2003: “His lyrics are like magpies’ nests, full of shiny fragments from parts unknown.”
Now Andrea Pitzer, addressing possibly copied verbiage in Dylan’s recent Nobel Lecture in Literature, writes at Slate, “Theft in the name of art is an ancient tradition, and Dylan has been a magpie since the 1960s.” Pitzer and a few other observers have combed through that knotty Nobel lecture Dylan delivered last week and found a number of phrases resembling ones found on SparkNotes, the literary summary site that helps students write essays about books they haven’t read.
The whale Moby Dick is “the embodiment of evil” in Dylan’s speech and on SparkNotes, but not in Herman Melville’s prose. Dylan says Captain Boomer “can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance,” SparkNotes says he “cannot understand Ahab’s lust for vengeance,” and Melville says neither. The writer Ben Greenman points out that Dylan attributed a direct quote to Moby Dick that is not actually in the book—but might have been derived from the online synopsis. In total, the Associated Press has verified 21 instances of possible SparkNotes influence, though “there are no verbatim sentences, only identical phrases and similar phrasing.” Dylan has not commented.
The writers who’ve investigated Dylan’s possible borrowing in his Nobel lecture have been quick to point out how on-brand—or at least unsurprising—such light plagiarism would be. Dylan’s lyrics and prose over the years have swiped from sources as wide-ranging as folk songs, travel brochures, and Japanese literature. He has also made various dubious biographical claims—of being a heroin addict, a prostitute, etc. The Joni Mitchells of the world see this collage aesthetic as evidence of him being a contemptible fraud. Dylan fans reply he is instead the consummate folk entertainer: recombining the past in inspired ways and crafting a persona to delight and mystify.
But the Nobel situation is especially fascinating. Intended or not, there are ironies to this particular allegation of theft, in this particular context.
Dylan’s Nobel has been controversial for its suggestion that popular music can achieve the same seriousness as a great novel. The singer’s response to this unprecedented honor—his delay in acknowledging his win, his refusal to attend the main ceremony, his waiting until nearly the final deadline to deliver his lecture—has been perceived as less than reverent. So in terms of the pure politics of prestige, Dylan using a cheatsheet obviously would not Play Well. But the singer has always seemed contemptuous of such politics, and causing a scandal by offending gatekeepers may have been his exact intention.
In a weird way, though, the SparkNotes episode might also fit with Dylan’s deeper message about literature. I took his speech to be largely a statement about the way art defies description and summary, its essence slippery and irreducible. Dylan says Moby Dick has had a deep influence on his own work, and yet he can’t answer the question of “what it all means”—and he suspects Melville couldn’t, either. The lecture itself is similarly difficult to pin down, a sum greater than it parts. The provenance of any individual phrase arguably doesn’t have much bearing on the fact that his speech stands as something new, between lecture and song, that can’t be fully appreciated without hearing the jazzy piano behind his words and the musicality in his recitation.
The cultural politics of folk music have relevance here, too. Dylan’s lecture talks about how the singer mastered the “vernacular” of American song traditions, and his diction throughout is notably simple, conversational. He explicitly places his discussion of classic books in the context that the vast majority of Americans experience encounter literature through: His “informed view of the world,” he says, came from the novels he read “in grammar school.”
So great books are not, in this framing, high art with the trappings of ceremony associated with the Nobel Committee. They are democratic artifacts, texts that form a simple shared language. It’s a man-of-the-people signal: Tasked with the homework of needing to write a lecture, Dylan’s mind went back to the era of desks and pencils when he was made to read Don Quixote and A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps, it may turn out, he even completed his homework like a deadline-pressured student might.
But Dylan is, of course, not actually a deadline-pressured student. The Slate and AP stories on the singer’s possible Nobel plagiarism feature quotes from professors who say cribbing from SparkNotes would have gotten him a failing grade in class. They may be correct, but Dylan’s lecture isn’t a piece of academic work. It’s art. Where you stand on whether this potential borrowing invalidates its merit is probably the same as where you stand on Bob Dylan’s way of creating in general.