Sunday, October 16, 2016

Bob Dylan and the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature: The Times are a-Changin'?

I don't think we can be surprised by Americans' strong reactions to the recent selection of Bob Dylan as the Nobel Laureate in Literature

On the one hand there is loud applause, some of it well-considered. In Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield alludes to Emerson's 1850 essay, "Shakespeare; or the Poet," in which Emerson notes that the great that Shakespeare played to the groundlings and moved on, unconcerned with the durability of any particular work or even if it was recorded. Likewise, he thinks, Dylan's ability to keep moving forward, never stuck on past successes, is a laudable strength. Like the Nobel committee, Sheffield is happy to place Dylan in the long literary tradition of bards. 

On the other hand, Anna North writes in The New York Times,"As reading declines around the world, literary prizes are more important than ever. A big prize means a jump in sales and readership even for a well-known writer." She further points out that music has plenty of awards, and Dylan has already been an acclaimed presence in his field: "Literature needs a Nobel Prize." Literature is books, and Dylan ain't books.

For my own part, I could do very well without the Nobel Prize or any other literary prize. 

What do they do? What do they celebrate? How do they edify us? Prizes are awarded to people who are already well known and oft-honored their accomplishments. Despite carefully organized, byzantine review processes, really nothing is easier than awarding conspicuous success. 

At the top of the literary judging game, what really distinguishes one famous nominee from another? Number of books sold? Number of good reviews? Reviews by whom and placed where? Honors by what organizations? How many translations? Dollars spent by their publisher's marketing department? Market penetration?

For many awards, the judges will be peers who have been nominated for similar awards and who in fact hold them. They are likely to move in the same circles, know one another professionally, have mingled at the same international conferences, spoken on the same panels, and often been competition for the same honors.

In the days when I socialized with honored scientists, they pointed out that the best predictor for winning a science Nobel was the number of Laureates one knew. 

But, people argue, Bob Dylan isn't like that! He's not part of the academic establishment! He's from a different world, fresh and unsullied! The times, they are a-changin'!

The nomination process for the Swedish Academy is long and careful, insuring that the five finalists will indeed be the best of the best in the terms set and honored since 1901. The longevity and tradition of the Prizes is what gives them their meaning and revered status, after all.

The nominators are not chosen from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are chosen from the heads of eminent literary societies, previous Nobel winners, national academies of high cultural purpose, and honored professors of literature. 

People in the position to nominate for Nobel Prizes have exalted positions not merely because they are smart or learned. Professors gain high positions by virtue of their scholarship, but also by their aptitude for academic politics, which allows them to win the competitions at every level of an extremely hierarchical profession; to become the heads of those learned societies or cultural organizations that sponsor their own prizes.

Many wish to assume that the election of Bob Dylan means the Swedish Academy is loosening up, becoming more generous with its definition of literature, and more in tune with the poetry of the groundlings. By its explicit admission, the Academy is emphatically not sending a populist message. Listen to the official announcement by Sarah Danius  and her question and answer session.

Professor Danius tells us that conferring the prize has nothing to do with Bob Dylan's popular culture status. The importance is his link to the ancient Greek tradition of oral poetry. 

Thus, the Swedish Academy has defined Dylan squarely into traditional, vaunted, academic norms: the very norms that we ourselves worship their prizes for maintainingeven those of us who praise their choice because we wish to honor a folk-rock hero. 

Who would care about the Nobels if they weren't considered the creme de la creme, the most prestigious of all, the tops? The Nobel must be the most exclusive: It is crucial to all of us.

If the Nobels were not this way, why would there be such strong opinions about whether Dylan is deserving or not? 

If we really believed that the Academy were diluting the prestige of its award by honoring a body of popular art, it would be the beginning of the end of our interest in the Prize. We depend on our perceived authority of the Nobel Prize. We need it to be arbiter of the Best because without it, we are left to our own standards, and that's not very comforting.

Even knowing that the Nobel "best" comes from a system defined by the least changeable, most entrenched cultural standards, we'll keep it and honor it.

Who's the real winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature? The Swedish Academy, every year. We, the public, are the runners-up, since we depend utterly on the Academy's authority to reassure us that Best exists in literature. 

We love the idea that Standards exist and that an Academy will decide on the standards, even when the Academy's choice redefines the artist most of us know as the person whose voice led the counter culture for years. 

Finally! Dylan has the seal of approval that the grown-ups withheld when he meant the most to the most people. Now he has the very Nobel Prize itself!

The Committee chose whom they wished to choose, by what criteria they wished, against competition we will never know. One thing is sure: They did not choose the folk-rock hero of a generation. They chose an artist whom they deem ready for canonization. 

That's what the Nobel Prizes are for.To ease artists into the canon. To defang what once was fierce; to mainstream what made us dream or change our ways. To enter into the professors' curricula as approved content what once broke hearts and made a really big difference—art that felt like it was ours alone. Art that now can be explained.

That's what literary prizes are for in general: to tame with rewards and to affirm the authority and standing of the granting organization. Without their wisdom, what would we ever figure out? What would we know about literature, on our own, unguided and without category?


  1. Again Starr Review has lead us through the aesthetic thicket. Brava!

  2. Nice, Ann Starr. I wish my parents were alive to see this award granted. And earned. Not to shove it in their faces to show them who was right--us or them. They changed with the times, too, and I think they would have appreciated Bob Dylan with his Nobel Prize

  3. I approve. I believe it to be well-earned. My father would have liked this, and he was an incredibly thoughtful and knowledgeable scholar and musician. Wondering though, about the competition? Thanks Ann!

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