On Thursday, Bob Dylan became the first professional musician to win the Nobel Prize in Literature — which means, at the very least, never again having to endure Facebook debates among culture nerds over whether Bob Dylan will win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Thank God, and apologies to Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Haruki Murakami, and the many other gallant, deserving, aging bridesmaids currently in line for the bouquet toss.
For those who mark their calendars for the October announcement and check the odds at Ladbrokes, as if Nobel candidates were prize horses, this debate has been raging for at least a few years. It has been loud enough to inspire a writer at the New Republic to proclaim — just last week — “Bob Dylan 100 percent is not going to win. Stop saying Bob Dylan should win the Nobel Prize.” So at the very least, Dylan’s winning of the award means never again being told that he won’t win it, and never again having to sit patiently through all the eloquent reasons why he should (his “work remains utterly lacking in conventionality,” wrote The New York Times in 2013) or shouldn’t (“[T]o award him the Nobel would be to ignore the power of the medium he has made his life’s work,” replied The Atlantic). No more of any of that, and again we say: amen.
Now, though, begins the era of debating whether he deserves it. Few reasonable people would question whether Dylan stands out among other lyricists, particularly those around his age. (He’s 75.) But this debate isn’t about talent — of course he deserves it, not only because of his own titanic gifts as a songwriter or the breadth of his influence over other artists, but also because both Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger played him in the same movie. That’s reason enough for me — your fave literally could never.
This boils down to a debate over whether a songwriter can or should win a prize for capital-l Literature. Well, why not? The American poetic tradition has roots in high-minded biblical verse and jeremiad-like political performance. It arose out of folk expression. Dylan’s long, vital career, which has artfully dovetailed from blues and folk music, has almost spanned the full gamut of possibilities for American lyricism, save hip-hop, and we’ll get to that. As Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, noted in an interview after the prize announcement, the neat divide between “music” and “literature” breaks down in the face of, say, Homer or Sappho, or, for my money, any number of black American poets, none of whom are Nobel laureates, whose work drew from the songs slaves sang in the fields as they worked. Their influence can be felt in the work of Toni Morrison, who won Nobel in 1993, or August Wilson, who I and many others believe would have won if he’d lived just a bit longer. (The prize cannot be awarded posthumously.)
The Nobel Prize in Literature has lately become a surprising, expansive award, occasionally moving beyond the traditional recipient — either a titan like Gabriel García Márquez or a little-known European novelist like Dario Fo, who died on Thursday — to a well-known short-story author (Alice Munro) or an expressive narrative journalist (Svetlana Alexievich) and, now, a globally famous rock star. I’m thankful for that, even if Dylan winning is ultimately not a real, barnstorming change of the guard; call me when a contemporary sci-fi author wins. Dylan had been canonized long before now, so the award merely gives his renown a new gloss. A bigger surprise would be an artist for whom that wasn’t already the case, or someone working in a musical tradition that, unlike rock, isn’t already widely acknowledged for its universalism.
Think about what it’d mean for a rapper, for example, to win the Nobel. None are quite old enough (the average Literature laureate is 65) and the historically defiant genre of hip-hop does not, by any means, need the validation of the Swedish Academy. But for the literary establishment to gesture toward understanding the importance of hip-hop as an indispensable, worldwide form of protest art — and one that’s distinctly lyrical and rooted in the untold possibilities of language, to boot — would be meaningful. Mind you, that won’t happen anytime soon; it was only on Thursday that the Nobel committee acknowledged folk music. But it’s not a question I’d have thought to ask yesterday.
For me, this prize resonates less in terms of Dylan himself and more so in terms of history and Dylan’s contemporaries, many of whom are long dead. Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize in Literature makes me imagine a world in which the likes of Odetta or Woody Guthrie could have won. This is, to my mind, a communal award, even if there’s only one name up top. And a worthy name, at that: Congrats, Mr. Dylan. You deserve it.