Oct 14th 2016

Why Bob Dylan deserves his Nobel prize in literature

To the surprise of many, Bob Dylan has become the first singer-songwriter to win the Nobel prize in literature.

As the news broke, I was in the middle of teaching James Joyce to some undergraduates – an author who did not win the Nobel, but is often considered a pinnacle of high literature. Many wouldn’t look to compare these two artists, not least those already protesting that Dylan’s win cheapens the award. But in many ways, they’re alike. I’m thrilled. Dylan’s win has been a slow train coming.

Meanwhile, Dylan will have been gearing up for another gig – much as he has been doing for more than half a century. On his Nobel-winning night he’s set to play Las Vegas, so it’s good to hear that he’s won a prize based on the reasonable judgement of a committee of high-minded enlightened experts and not just on the throw of the dice.

In terms of stamina alone, he’s a worthy winner but – more than that – it is the quality and the generosity of the achievement that is a pleasure to recognise. It’s great for his millions of fans around the world, old and young, great for the prize and great for the idea that popular music and serious literature aren’t necessarily so different after all.

The world of Dylan’s most distinctive lyrics is probably more Las Vegas than it is Stockholm – his songs are more often populated with gamblers than writers and academics. But his stature as the poet of rock and roll has never really been much in doubt. The significant presence of literary culture in what Variety magazine once mocked as the “deliberately iggerunt” vernacular language of his songs has increasingly been revealed.

The seriousness of the literary as well as musical achievement has gradually gained more and more respect and leading academic critics, such as Christopher Ricks, have been keen to recognise and to try to account for it. His autobiographical Chronicles are packed with references to and anecdotes about writers.

References and anecdotes are also something that filled Joyce’s pages. Curiously, Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records at the time Dylan was beginning his recording career, gave him a first-edition copy of Joyce’s masterwork Ulysses. Dylan professed that “he couldn’t make hide nor hair of it”. He wanted the poet Archibald MacLeish to explain it to him but didn’t get around to asking in the end.

Readers of Joyce as well as Dylan might recognise that as just the kind of thing that happens to Joyce’s hero Leopold Bloom. Ulysses is full of snatches of songs and music – and if it had been written a few years later Bob Dylan would have been in there for sure.

What a lucky man to own a first edition of such a famous text – now one of the most prized and valuable of all collectable rare and vintage books (one sold in 2009 for £275,000) as well as one that is most valued by serious literary critics and readers all over the world. Not a bad insurance policy just in case the recording career didn’t take off.

But of course it did take off – and how. It’s hard to imagine a more prominent living figure in American culture – perhaps even world culture – than Bob Dylan, or one whose work combines a more richly poetic and surreal artistry in its vision of the contemporary world, a more iconoclastic sense of social justice, more notes of personal intimacy or such a dry and acute sense of humour. There is nobody better capable of provoking his huge and amazingly loyal audience with new challenges, at the same time as endearing himself to them all the more.

I hope the buskers and street singers in the subways and on the street corners around the world dust off their favourite Dylan standards and sing them out loud. It’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone with or without a guitar or harmonica who hasn’t tried to strum some Dylan chords or mimic that unmistakeable voice at some point in their lives – just to try to answer that great Dylan anthem question: “How does it feel?

How does it feel for Dylan to win the Nobel? Let’s hope he tells us in the acceptance speech – or in song.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Literary Essays

May 31st 2018
Postcolonial scholarship has overwhelmingly focused on the legacy of Western empires – but despite a long history of foreign expansionism and domination, Russia, in its various incarnations, has never received the same amount of critical scrutiny. The Tsarist empire’s position outside the West proper, the Soviet Union’s stated opposition to imperialism, and the fact that Russia’s empire was a contiguous land empire rather than an overseas one all helped shield it from postcolonial critique. The result is a strange oversight – especially considering the fact that the heir to the largest continental empire in modern history clearly remains uncomfortable with the independence of many of its former subordinates.
May 24th 2018

At the age of 50, Henry James created a detailed portrait of an experimental novelist in old age, in his story “The Middle Years.” Terminally ill, the novelist Dencombe receives in the mail the published version of what he realizes will be his final work, a novel titled The Middle Years.

Apr 26th 2018
I would like to share a love story – framed by two solitary moments (separated by fourteen years, two months, three days, and sixteen hours) before the same telephone in the same hotel room in Boston, Massachusetts. But, to begin with, let me go back to the first meeting I had with the young woman. I met Julie in a museum, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, in Concord, Massachusetts, on May 22, 2003, a few minutes after 10:30 AM – just three days before the bicentennial of Mr. Emerson’s birth, and three days after my own thirty-third birthday. But I hope no one will think that I believe I can parallel Mr. Emerson on any greater terms than that small coincidence.
Apr 25th 2018
Ever since I first began listening to popular music on a transistor radio, I have been fascinated by one-hit wonders. Today, oldies stations can devote entire weekends to singers and groups who had one hit and were never heard from again, including such classics as the Penguins’ “Earth Angel,” the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” and the Murmaids’ “Popsicles and Icicles.” When I began studying creativity, I discovered that one-hit wonders were not unique to pop. Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial are celebrated instances in which the name of an artist instantly calls to mind a single work, and vice versa....
Apr 3rd 2018

Serious readers like to see a review or two about big, complicated novels before deciding whether to devote their life to them.  The thousand-page Russian classics all seem to carry this warning flag. 

Feb 23rd 2018
For two years I was president of a member group of the Road Runners Club of America. I enjoyed my service, but I did not seek a second term.
Sep 23rd 2017

PRINCETON – This summer, at literary festivals and bookstores around the world, readers celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the debut of the first book in J.K.

Jun 9th 2017

As a pianist, I have spent a lifetime reading interviews with other pianists. But I would know, above all, what it is precisely that others think about when they play. People often ask me that question.

Feb 6th 2017

During all of my adult life as an author and pianist, Ralph Waldo Emerson has been for me the supreme and unremitting guide to the Western canon.

Feb 1st 2017

Rarely does a musician with a Juilliard background and a Ph.D. in piano performance find the energy, much less the time, to conceive, plot, write and publish a series of well-constructed novels.

Jan 24th 2017

The Wall Street Journal has made an egregious error. I'm not talking about their coverage of Donald Trump, Russian hacking, or any other such ephemera. This concerns something much more serious: classic literature.

Jan 7th 2017

A Talmudic question has much intrigued me: Two men are stranded in the desert. Only one has water. If he shares it, they both die; if he keeps it, he lives and his companion dies. What should he do? Rabbi Akiva taught that the man has the right to drink it.

Oct 14th 2016

To the surprise of many, Bob Dylan has become the first singer-songwriter to win the Nobel prize in literature.

Sep 13th 2016

It is 100 years since the birth of Roald Dahl – considered by many to be the world’s number one storyteller. His books have received enthusiastic responses from millions of children all around the world.

Mar 5th 2016

Language pedants who take pleasure in policing other people’s use of grammar often have an air of respectability about them, but it’s usually a sheen hiding something more pernici

Oct 23rd 2015
NEW YORK – It was 1985, and change was in the air in the Soviet Union. Aging general secretaries were dropping like flies.