Nobel for Bob Dylan splits the worlds of literature and music

In this bitter feud, there are several sitting on the fence.

 |  5-minute read |   21-10-2016
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The radical decision of the Nobel Prize committee to confer the coveted award for literature to legendary musician Bob Dylan has stirred up a kind of controversy, with the prize itself ending up dividing the world of arts into two: intellectuals who have welcomed his conferment (most of who are musicians with a few exceptions) and intellectuals who don’t think he deserved the award (most of them are writers).

This has happened because Dylan is not really a litterateur in the strict sense of the word. The Swedish Committee has been quite unorthodox in its choice of late, beginning with Italian playwright Dario Fo. In a statement, the committee gives the reason for conferring the award: "For having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

Swedish Academy member Per Wastberg waxes more eloquent: "He is probably the greatest living poet. If you look back, far back, you discover Homer and Sappho, and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to,” she said. “They were meant to be performed. It’s the same way with Bob Dylan. But we still read Homer and Sappho. He can be read and should be read.”

Naturally, many noted musicians have praised the choice. Keith Richards, English guitarist and founding member of the rock band The Rolling Stones, says: “I can’t think of anybody that deserved it better.”

dylan1-embed_102116033000.jpg Bob Dylan is not really a litterateur in the strict sense of the word. (Photo credit: Reuters) 

Bruce Springsteen, songwriter and E Street Band member, is more elaborate in his praise of Dylan: “Bob Dylan is the father of my country. Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived…. He inspired me and gave me hope. He asked the questions everyone else was too frightened to ask, especially to a 15-year-old: How does it feel… to be on your own? He planted a flag, wrote the songs, sang the words that were essential to the times, to the emotional and spiritual survival of so many young Americans at that moment.

Springsteen goes on to say that: “Without Bob, the Beatles wouldn’t have made Sgt Pepper, maybe the Beach Boys wouldn’t have made Pet Sounds, the Sex Pistols wouldn’t have made God Save the Queen, U2 wouldn’t have done Pride (In the Name of Love), Marvin Gaye wouldn’t have done What’s Going On, Grandmaster Flash might not have done The Message and the Count Five could not have done Psychotic Reaction.”

Mick Jagger, lead singer and co-founder of The Rolling Stones, said during the recent Desert Trip festival which brought together music greats like him, Neil Young, Paul McCartney and Dylan himself: “I want to thank Bob Dylan for an amazing set…. We have never shared the stage with a Nobel Prize winner before. Bob is like our own Walt Whitman.”

Music great Leonard Cohen says: “To me [the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”

The inscrutable Tom Waits congratulated Dylan with a tweet.

Dylan's former partner and musician Joan Baez said the Nobel Prize for Literature for the music icon is "another step towards immortality". He went a little further too: "The rebellious, reclusive, unpredictable artist/composer is exactly where the Nobel Prize for Literature needs to be.”

On the other hand, many writers and authors have expressed their reservations about the choice. Some of them have even questioned the collective wisdom of the Nobel Prize Committee.

Best-selling novelist Novelist Jodi Picoult tweeted:

American author Jason pinter said: "If Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize for Literature, then I think @StephenKing should get elected to the Rock N' Roll hall of fame."

Satirist Gary Shteyngart was stinging in his remark: “I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard.”

Hari Kunzru, British novelist of Indian origin, says: “This feels like the lamest Nobel win since they gave it to (Barack) Obama for not being Bush.”

It is not only the authors who find themselves on the other side of the fence, in fact, the other constituents of the arts fraternity have panned the choice, bordering on the provocative at times.

Music journalist Everett True is vitriolic: "Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature is like your third-rate English teacher at school, trying to look 'cool'."

The New York Times in an op-ed on Dylan’s win whined: "He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honour a writer."

Novelist Jeff VanderMeer was more blunt: “The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded only to those who have created literature. Bob Dylan was awarded the prize. Therefore Dylan is a creator of literature?”

Several others are of the view that novelists and authors such as Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, or Philip Roth deserved the prize more than Dylan.

But as always there are voices to the contrary too, from the world of literature, but they are few.

Salman Rushdie tweeted:

Poet Billy Collins affirms the choice: "In the 2 per cent club of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page."

In this bitter feud, there are several sitting on the fence. Writer Jason Diamond tweeted:

Maybe that is what is happening to several of us, with no idea of which way to go.

Also read: Bob Dylan doesn't need Nobel Prize for Literature

Also read: Nobel for Bob Dylan is a tribute to the era of free eccentrics



Muqbil Ahmar Muqbil Ahmar @muqbil_ahmar

The writer is a theatre activist, film critic and blogger who wants to bring harmony in society. Music, poetry and food are his passions.

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