What Bob Dylan’s Nobel win means for ‘literature’

Sayantan Ghosh
Sayantan GhoshOct 24, 2016 | 16:14

What Bob Dylan’s Nobel win means for ‘literature’

Bob Dylan’s Nobel win has come at an odd time. Many think he should have received it much earlier, and some are of the opinion that he doesn’t deserve it at all. But like he had himself written way back in 1964, "the times they are a-changin'", changed it certainly has, at least for the Nobel committee.

Although he’s not the first songwriter to have been bestowed upon with this honour, as any Bengali sitting next to you at work with an internet connection will point out if you even as much begin to say those words. It was Tagore first, Dylan later.

However, Tagore managed to steer clear of similar criticism, perhaps because his contribution to modern literature is equally seminal as his songs, if not more. So, even though he won it for his songwriting, the word on the street must have been that he could have easily won it for his other works too.

Bob, who came from the Midwest and stormed Greenwich Village, before hypnotising thousands at the Newport Festival, with a "little" help from a female singer/songwriter who thought he sounded like a mouse, is the oddball, the odd one out amongst facsimiles. Bob, who decades later sounds like a tired mouse now, who forces the Nobel panel to give up trying to reach him since his win because he wouldn’t take their calls.

What’s promising, however, is the nature in which the adjudicators behind perhaps the most prestigious literary prize in the world have decided to step out of their comfort zone and rewarded an unusual maverick for his body of work, for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition" to be precise, over popular contenders such as Haruki Murakami or Ngugi Wa Thiong'o or Don DeLillo.

Dylan got the Noble won over popular contenders like Haruki Murakami. 

If art is meant to be boundless then literature has to be one of its fieriest wings, cascading down on its admirers with new images, words, pictures, et al. With Dylan’s win, whether or not he chooses to acknowledge it, the limits of control over what could be considered "literature" and what not has been thinned. And hopefully indelibly.

Why can’t the creators of Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, be contenders for a prestigious literary prize? That show, in many ways, served the same purpose as the narrative of a literary novel — captured the confusion of its time, created believable yet memorable characters, established a strong sense of place and on top of everything was hilarious as well.

Or, for instance, the writers of a show like True Detective (Season 1), who created an effective modern nightmare infusing their protagonist Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey’s character) with a sense of spiritual nihilism perhaps never seen before on American television.

Leonard Cohen has already been a favourite for years to win the Nobel; and how can Woody Allen never be nominated for the semi-autobiographical screenplays of Stardust Memories or Annie Hall, both literary classics in their own ways.

But if the award committees are to extend their arms and reach out to more artists, why shouldn’t writers around the world too try to experiment with their form and style?

Sure, nothing succeeds like success, and there’s always that burden of expectations at their ends to satisfy the loyalists. But this uncaging of thoughts and ideas, if it has to happen, must happen at both ends.

Why can’t a Murakami book be without cats, and empty hotels and jazz music? What if he decides to write a war satire next? Or Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant social commentary on modern America and especially its family system be replaced by a gothic horror tale for adults? Neil Gaiman must totally write a young-adult romance next and free this generation from John Green.

And I know I may get lynched for writing this, but closer home I would give an arm and a tooth to read a pulpy no-holds-barred take on carnal desires, ala Fifty Shades of Grey set in the mountains of Mussoorie by Ruskin Bond.

Because if writers, and poets, and musicians, and artists wouldn’t have constantly tried to step out of their boxes through the years, that saying about art comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comforted would have never come true.


Last updated: October 24, 2016 | 16:14
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