The Laureation of Bob Dylan

A colleague of mine from the University of Toronto, Chet Scoville, has written an excellent piece on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I want to expand on what he says.

First, I’m not a great fan of prizes for art. Ranking one piece of art as greater than another is a highly subjective exercise, and prizes that award the artist, as opposed to a particular work, as the Nobel does, are especially problematic. Just take note of the fact that it is rare to find a university English course nowadays that focuses on a single writer. The only writer who is routinely given a regularly scheduled course of his own is Shakespeare. A few universities may also have one on Chaucer, but that’s it. Every other writer is read alongside and in conversation with others. The Nobel’s focus on the “great writer” is distinctly out of step with how we read and consider literature today.

I don’t have a problem with Dylan winning the prize; he is a great and highly influential artist. But I would resist any claim that Dylan is somehow more or less deserving than Philip Roth, Joni Mitchell, or Ursula K. Le Guin (just to name three American artists whose names have been bandied about as worthy of consideration). Alice Munro won the Nobel in 2013, and many believe that Margaret Atwood will now never win it because they “can’t” award the prize to two Canadians in a short span of time. Did Munro deserve to win? Yes. Is she a better writer than Atwood? No. Nor is she a lesser one. Such comparisons, while perhaps making an enjoyable topic for barroom debate, are essentially meaningless, especially since political factors like one’s country of origin plays into the selection process. It would be much better if the Nobel went to individual works of literature—after all, the science prizes are awarded for individual discoveries—and if there were an indeterminate number awarded every year, creating an aura of “these are a number of works worthy of recognition,” rather than “this is the best.” But, of course, that’s not going to happen.

One good thing about Dylan winning, though, is that it challenges the popular concept of literature. Of all the commentary on social media, I haven’t seen one literature professor opine that popular music doesn’t qualify as literature. That sentiment has come from outside the circle of those who study the subject for a living. The popular concept of “literature” is books, preferably books of poetry or novels, the heavier, both literally and metaphorically, the better. And if it’s written by a dead, white man, even better. But literature encompasses so much more: songs, raps, graphic novels, comic strips, journalism, science fiction, folklore, horror.... All of which deserves to be studied and the best of it honored.

The choice of Dylan is not, however, daring. Dylan is a hugely successful, commercial artist. He is as mainstream as it gets. Go out into the crowd and start asking people to name something written by Alice Munro, Philip Roth, or Margaret Atwood. You’ll get blank stares and a lot of hemming and hawing. Every now and then you might find someone who pipes in with “Portnoy’s Complaint” or “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but that’s about it. But ask them to name something by Dylan, and they’ll rattle off dozens of his songs. I’m not implying by this that Dylan doesn’t deserve to win the prize or that he isn’t an innovative artist; I’m just saying that he’s not a daring choice. I agree with Chet Scoville, choosing Alison Bechdel would be daring.

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