Παρασκευή, 14 Οκτωβρίου 2016

Bob Dylan as Nobel laureate



       As discussed yesterday -- hey, it takes a while for the reality of this to sink in -- they named ... Bob Dylan this year's Nobel laureate. 

       A few more observations now that it's (very slowly ...) sinking in: 

        - I think the selection was a misstep for the Swedish Academy. 
       They've made some ... unusual choices before -- but these have tended to be of the relatively obscure literary kind, say a Dario Fo or Elfriede Jelinek: only a very limited audience really has sufficient familiarity with their work to even hold an opinion as to whether or not the choice was good. (Not that that ever stopped everyone else from opining/denouncing .....) Bob Dylan isn't just well-known, he's an international superstar, a celebrity bigger than pretty much any author. The last comparably famous literature laureate was also an odd choice -- Winston Churchill, in 1953 --, but Churchill did have an impressive body of serious writing. Sure, it was almost all non-fiction, and not widely read (outside the UK), but still. 
       Selecting Dylan weakens the brand the Swedish Academy had built up so carefully -- elitist and 'literary' (and, less helpfully, tending towards the male and European -- but that could be rectified by other means). As the media complained every year before a name was even announced: no popular authors if they could help it. It was a brand that was easy to criticize and/or make fun of, but, boy, they owned it. But by selecting someone more popular than pretty much any author, ever -- and someone who isn't a traditional author, but rather struts his stuff on a stage and in recording studios -- they've hopelessly confused and muddled the issue. And the brand. 
       What does this prize now stand for ? Sure, great, they take the large(st) view of what 'literature' is, and can be, now -- where does that leave us, or get us ? Wasn't their (high and mighty) little niche position a better perch ? (And a lot more fun ?) 

        - I can't help but wonder whether or not the somewhat rejuvenated Swedish Academy (a younger generation replacing the old fuddy-duddies who have died off) isn't simply star struck. They all are over-familiar with authors, and unimpressed by literary fame, so giving it to Philip Roth or Adonis or whoever is probably just a big yawn by now. But Dylan ... Dylan is a different kind of star, one they don't often get to mingle with. I have to wonder whether the Swedish Academy fan-boys and -girls weren't moved by nostalgia for days of youth and rock/folk abandon, and the chance to toast (and nervously giggle around) one of their big teen-idols in person (as they will have at the ceremonies in December). 
       (It will be interesting to learn (in fifty years, sigh ...) whether there was a generational divide in what was surely a contentious debate among the Academicians. Though note that Dylan has been on the scene for ages -- folks now in their 70s 'grew up' with him and his music .....) 

        - I could see this being an exciting choice if they had made it in, say, the mid- or late-1970s. But now ? If they just want to shock -- well, they selected a pretty tired old specimen to shock with. Yes, Dylan is a classic and an all-time great. But let's face it, his best years are quite a few decades behind him. 
       (I know this could be said about many of the authors who have received the prize, but it's hard to think of any recent one that got the prize so far post-peak.) 

        - The Swedish Academy can't be blamed alone: candidates have to be nominated by someone, and I really wonder who that person (or people ?) was who wasted their nomination on Dylan year after year -- because he has been rumored to be a candidate for decades. Did they mean it as a joke (which has now spectacularly backfired) ? Were theyserious ? If you could only nominate one or two candidates a year, well, who in their right mind would nominate Bob Dylan above all the other wonderful writers out there ? Someone has a lot to answer for ..... 

        - As to the whole debate about whether a songwriter -- and, despite Tarantula and the memoirs, let's face it, that's what Dylan is -- should be considered for a 'literature' Nobel: generally I'm not thrilled about the expansion of the term in this way. The argument would seem to me to be: if you strip away the music, do the words hold up ? Drama seems to me to qualify: I don't need it to be acted out for me to appreciate it (in fact, personally I'm more of a play-reader than -watcher), but songs ? And specifically Dylan's songs ? I'm not convinced. So that's another problem I have with him getting the prize: I think he's a great artist, but a middling writer. 

        - Finally, I think it's a bit problematic that the Swedish Academy makes this sudden leap into these particular big leagues. Dylan is internationally recognized -- again, more than practically any author: there might be a handful (none of whom would ever be considered Nobel-worthy, by the way) with similar reach and name recognition (Stephen King ? Paulo Coelho ?) -- and this award, which generally goes to writers who might be lucky to sell tens of thousands of copies of their books (and often are selling far, far, far fewer) suddenly goes to an artist who has reportedly sold some 100,000,000 albums (never mind his download- and radio-reach ...). Dylan is simply in a different popularity- and recognizability-league than anyone who has ever gotten the prize (well, arguably, save Churchill -- but his renown was of a different sort (and involved far fewer swooning and/or stoned college kids, etc.)) . 
       It seems a bit (or a lot) of a shame to me, to in a way waste such an opportunity and give the prize to someone who really already couldn't be more famous. (Are there people -- anywhere -- who are hearing about Dylan for the first time because he won the Nobel ? I kind of doubt it. When was the last time we could say that of a literature laureate ? (Yes, yes: 1953.)) I could accept it if Dylan's really was the apogee of art -- if he were a Shakespeare or a Goethe. But he's not. He's very, very good -- but that's about it. And I'd argue there are a ot of writers who are better at their art (even granting they do something different than songwriter Dylan does) -- a lot of them, in fact. 

       So what about other reactions ? 
       Well, there have been some nice multiple-brief-reaction round-ups, such as:
       There are some pro and contra discussions:
       There were a few pieces arguing that it wasn't a good choice:
       Far more, however, were pleased by the choice, and wholeheartedly endorsed it:
       There are also a few pieces that look at this selection and what it signifies for the Nobel Prize, and for literature:
       Finally, Adam Langer offers lists of The Best and Worst Things About Bob Dylan Winning the Nobel Prize at Forward.


The Literary Salon at the Complete Review

 (Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -


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