Finest songwriter, but Nobel Laureate?

Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature is a concession from the exclusive to the egalitarian

October 17, 2016 12:51 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:50 pm IST

Drawing a line:  “My generation grew up on Bob Dylan; most of us can quote him with greater ease than we can Shakespeare or the Bible.” File photo of Dylan performing in New Orleans in 2006.

Drawing a line: “My generation grew up on Bob Dylan; most of us can quote him with greater ease than we can Shakespeare or the Bible.” File photo of Dylan performing in New Orleans in 2006.

When the Nigerian, Wole Soyinka, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, V.S. Naipaul commented that the Nobel Prize Committee was “pissing on literature... from a great height.” In three decades since, the committee has worked its way to even greater heights to perform the same act. My generation grew up on Bob Dylan; most of us can quote him with greater ease than we can Shakespeare or the Bible. Heroes of our youth winning the best that mankind has to offer ought to somehow validate us. Yet it is more embarrassing than uplifting.

Highbrow and lowbrow

It is easy to see this as a highbrow versus lowbrow argument, but there’s more. Popular culture is seen as lowbrow, literature as highbrow. The labels nourish each other, bringing the other into sharper focus (although not always with better understanding) by providing the counterpoint. Occasionally, highbrow kicks its shoes off, lets its hair down, reaches below and pulls up lowbrow. This is a concession from the exclusive to the egalitarian; from quality to equality.

In art, kitsch was thus elevated. In movies, the work of Alfred Hitchcock was given a similar boost by the critics of Cahiers du cinema .

Dylan may be the finest songwriter of this or any other generation, with sheer longevity and volume of work placing him above Woody Guthrie or Leonard Cohen. But literature? The Swedish Academy has played it safe by implying that though Dylan’s lyrics may be poetry, it is the whole caboodle — the music, the social commentary, the public performance that mattered. “And he’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way,” it said, “Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.” The defensive tone cannot be missed.

The Committee could not give the award to Homer, so they gave it to Dylan instead. This puts the singer in the same literary class as W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, and above Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce and Joseph Conrad who were not thought good enough.

The response in the literary world has been interesting. Older writers like Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison have welcomed it. Hari Kunzru’s reaction is typical of the young: “This feels like the lamest Nobel win since they gave it to Obama for not being Bush,” he tweeted.

This is the battle between cool and uncool. It is uncool to suggest that a musical icon is no literary giant, however attractive his lyrics and however haunting his music. It is cool to admit that sure, Dylan could not have written Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or anything by Philip Roth or Haruki Murakami, and ask, “But then could any of these writers have written ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ or ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’?”

In one corner, therefore, are the yeasayers, those who believe the time had come to honour Dylan (who has been on the fringes of Nobel Prize discussions for some time now) and in the other are the naysayers who think that the committee has opened the floodgates to everybody who has ever put pen to paper, including writers of detective fiction and advertisement jingles, and art critics. This can be cause for both encouragement and despair. The individual can hope — the system has been tweaked to make it less elitist. Justin Bieber can start dreaming.

There are always two ways of justifying the Nobel Prize, and not just in literature. “If someone like x could win it, then surely y is no worse,” goes one, and you can fill in the names of x and y (Sully Prudhomme and Pearl Buck?). The other is the “affected millions of people” argument. The Committee, for so long allergic to the popular writer (Graham Greene didn’t win because he was seen as too popular, too well known), has now swung to the other extreme and picked someone who is not only popular and well known, but may not be a writer even. “If Dylan’s a poet,” wrote Norman Mailer years ago, “then I am a basketball player.”

Dylanologists beg to differ. The best known, Christopher Ricks, former professor of English at Cambridge University and then professor of humanities at Boston University, has compared Dylan to the great poets. In Dylan’s Visions of Sin , Ricks has drawn parallels between Dylan’s ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’ and John Donne’s poem ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’. Dylan’s ‘Not Dark Yet’ has been compared to Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.

What Dylan thought of himself

Which is all good fun, of course. Ricks, and Greil Marcus, another academic, have been beating Dylan’s drum as have a host of lesser known critics and writers. Some have made a virtue of Dylan’s appropriation of others’ works, saying there is a long tradition of borrowing in art, literature and music. Life and art, Dylan himself once said, are a matter of interpretation, not fact. His best line about his own work was in response to someone who asked him what his songs were about. “Some are about three minutes and some are about five minutes,” he replied, suggesting, as he often did, that he personally didn’t take this “voice of a generation” business too seriously.

If it were left to him, he’d probably sit down to write another poem/song along the lines of ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m only Laughing — all the way to the bank and the pantheon of literary heroes).’

Roth and Rushdie, Oates and Murakami, Don DeLillo and Ngugi wa Thiong’o are probably working furiously on their first rock albums now.

Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu

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