+++ A slightly shorter version of this appeared in Varsity on 28 October 2016 +++
Last Thursday, the world of literature was split into two camps. As word spread that the 2016 Nobel laureate was not Don DeLillo, not Haruki Murakami, but in fact Bob Dylan, voices of dissent and of approval began to engage in an argument over a fundamental, deceptively easy question: is this literature?
With previous winners including T. S. Eliot, John Steinbeck, and Toni Morrison, Dylan joins an eminent host of American writers who have received the distinction. Sceptics, however, argue that he doesn’t belong among these ranks, simply because he is not in the business of literature. Indeed, the native Minnesotan is the first musician among the 113 honourees in the award’s history.
But it’s too narrow-minded to dismiss Dylan solely on the grounds of medium and genre. Granted, every Introduction to Literary Studies lecture impresses upon the starry-eyed undergraduate that the three major genres of literature are prose, drama, and poetry. Then, where do you put Dylan? Advocates of his win came running swiftly, proclaiming Dylan the poet, Dylan the 20th century Bard. But although he was hailed “the greatest living poet” by Van Morrison decades ago and continues to be labelled in the same vein, this also misses the mark.
Dylan is that somewhat awkwardly branded breed called ‘singer/songwriter’, and there is no shame in saying it out loud. Literature and music have always been sister art forms; nothing speaks against a significant intersection between the two. Dylan won the prize “for having created new poetic expression within the great American song tradition”. What if not evolve material from their national song tradition did the likes of Wordsworth and Tennyson do in their day? They printed their poetry in books; Dylan presses his songs on vinyl and CD. They have in common the immensely innovate treatment of the English language and its cultural heritage.
But it’s not just the folk tradition handed down from Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly that gave Dylan his artistic credentials. In his 2004 autobiography Chronicles, he writes of his early interest in literature ‘proper’. Poems by the English Romantics and novels ranging from Dickens to Dostoyevsky fascinated him profoundly. He later befriended Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and, in an admittedly rather marginal volume of prose poetry entitled Tarantula (1971), even made his own foray into book writing. The 75-year-old certainly didn’t win the Nobel Prize by pure association with all things literary, but his legacy is far bigger than that of a mere folk troubadour.
There is one piece whose lasting influence Dylan stresses over all others, and which should serve as a reminder that the lines of medium are blurred in the field of verbal art. ‘Pirate Jenny’, a song from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera (1928), served as a “prototype” for the budding storyteller, then in his twenties. Brecht was Germany’s most prominent modern playwright, Weill a successful composer. Well, what is it – literature or music? Surely not neither. Surely both.
It should be obvious that the clean separation of one from the other is a futile project. Poets such as Leonard Cohen may come along who have a strong affinity to music, and songwriters may exhibit inspired engagement with the printed word, as Suzanne Vega has done in her most recent album. In Friday’s Telegraph, former Cambridge professor Christopher Ricks, a leading literary critic and long-time scholar of Dylan’s work, made the case for viewing the newly crowned laureate’s work as just what it is – an inseparable aggregate of various art forms: “[I]t doesn’t make sense to ask which element of a compound is more ‘important’: the voice, or the music, or the words? (Which is more important in water, the oxygen or the hydrogen?)”
And so there are also favourable opinions in the literary establishment. Toni Morrison called the award “an impressive choice”, and Salman Rushdie, himself often considered a Nobel contender, declared that “Dylan towers over everyone”, concluding that “[t]he frontiers of literature keep widening”.
The Nobel Committee, perhaps usually perceived as a stuffy institution, has opened its doors and with Dylan ushers in a people’s writer – not in the sense of an avid interaction with fans on Dylan’s part – on the contrary, he is notoriously laconic and avoids publicity – but in the wide-reaching ways in which his work has touched the life of the everyman; listening to Highway 61 Revisited or Blood on the Tracks is arguably less intimidating than the perusal of the collected works of Samuel Beckett. Novelist Nick Hornby, whose most famous story, High Fidelity, is set in the world of popular music, expressed it with humour: “Bob Dylan! The Nobel Prize for Literature! But…I know his stuff!”
Those still apprehensive should be comforted, for the awarding of the prize to a songwriter doesn’t mean that next year’s laurels won’t go to a writer of the more conventional kind (in fact, they most likely will). If anything, the Nobel Prize has strengthened its significance by demonstrating a progressive, non-prescriptive understanding of literature.
The wonderful richness of Dylan’s songbook ranges from readily approachable folk balladry – those songs in which he recognisably carries the torch of the American song tradition – to the puzzling realms of modernist poetry. Nobel Prize or not, Dylan’s work is that of one of the greats. Be it “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” from ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ or “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood / With his memories in a trunk / Passed this way an hour ago / With his friend, a jealous monk” from ‘Desolation Row’, his images never fail to strike a special note – in the listening eye as in the reading ear.