When I heard that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I texted my sister, Liz, who texted back the exact same thing that I was thinking: “That should make for an interesting acceptance speech.”
Reading the various reactions to the news, you could pretty much separate the naysayers into two distinct categories: On the one hand were people who simply rejected the notion that a “musician” and particularly a “rock” or a “pop” musician should even be considered for such an award. The second group appeared to consist mostly of people who knew, and even appreciated, Dylan’s lyrics, but simply thought that other writers – notably Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, if talking about Americans, or Haruki Murakami, if not – were more deserving.
The first group – although probably beyond conversion – has likely never seriously considered Bob Dylan’s lyrics. They know him, if at all, by his few hits, and probably don’t realize that many of the songs made popular by Jimi Hendrix, the Byrds, Joe Cocker, Van Morrison, Joan Baez, or even Guns N’ Roses, were originally penned by him.
To the second group, I would offer, initially, this:
If William Wordsworth were alive today, and they awarded him the Nobel Prize for the Lyrical Ballads, no one would really have a problem with it. Now go and read the full collection of Bob Dylan’s lyrics and tell me they aren’t as good as the Lyrical Ballads.
When I was in high school, there was a Norton Anthology of Poetry that included the lyrics from Boots of Spanish Leather as an example of a ballad with alternating speakers in a dialogue of alternating verses. That happened to be one of my favorite songs at the time, and I would always wonder whether the “boots of Spanish leather” were supposed to mean simply that he was hitting the road, (away from her), or whether there was something more symbolic, (e.g. a torture device from the Spanish Inquisition) (?)
I remember a letter to the editor at some point in the past few months or years, (I think maybe the New York Times Magazine, but I’m not positive), responding to something critical that someone had written about Dylan’s work, along the lines of something like: “Blood on the Tracks says everything there is to say about the full cycle of love and marriage and divorce between a man and a woman. And if you can’t see that, you’re an idiot; it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.”
When Chuck Klosterman explores in But What If We’re Wrong? who, three hundred years from now, will come to be remembered as the embodiment of “rock music”, he laments that, although Dylan – or Elvis – would seem to be the obvious choice, [he excludes the Beatles and the Rolling Stones because history tends to favor a single hero myth, as opposed to a collaboration], it would seem odd to settle on a figure who never really “rocked”.
But, perhaps, that is exactly why Dylan might make more sense in the cannon of “literature”.
His music is fine. And, indeed, it’s amazing the number of different genres and styles that he and his bands have explored. But it’s generally not the music that makes a Bob Dylan song memorable.
Sympathy for the Devil and Stairway to Heaven and Bad all have good lyrics. But if you take the music away, they are not as relatable as poems.
Whereas if you take the music away entirely from Mr. Tambourine Man or Chimes of Freedom or Gates of Eden, the essence is still there. [The songs cited most often in support of Dylan’s Prize seem to be Idiot Wind and Visions of Johanna, two sensible choices, Desolation Row, which features a shout-out to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, fighting in the captain’s tower, and Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, as an example of his playful humor, at times.] Indeed, other (better) musicians have made more of his lyrics than he has. The essence is almost never in the music, but almost always in the words.
The question is: How “good” are the words?
Are they, as poems, “high” enough, as art? Stylized sufficiently? Rarified?
Which brings us back to the general question of what there is to say for a literature of words that people actually consume, and remember, and “use” in some way?
Someone was reported saying something like: “I rather doubt that Roth or DeLillo would trade American Pastoral or Underworld for the Bob Dylan collection.” Well, I can’t speak for either Roth or DeLillo, but for me that would be a no-brainer.
The Dylan collection is so much more expansive in scope. The breath of topics, the range of emotions, and language, and styles. And, more than that, a collection that is actually known, and loved, and quoted.
What does someone remember from a novel? Even a really good one. Some general feeling that it was good, and maybe a sense of the narrator’s voice, or other character, plot, style, and tone. Maybe a vague recollection of a notable conversation between two characters, or observation by the author himself.
But thousands of people, maybe millions, walk around with Bob Dylan quotes on their tongues – which are frequently triggered by various stimuli or daily provocations.
So the question is, (particularly in these post-1990 Internet decades of pervasively self-published books, blogs, likes, videos, songs, photos, posts, snaps, chats, quotes, jokes, instagrams, and tweets): What level of democratization do we want?
I am an elitist, to be sure.
I don’t think that the most sold, most read, most entertaining authors are worthy of Nobels, as the “best” (or even as “literature” in many cases). But ballads and poems and tales that are poignant, that are meaningful, that are funny, or ironic, or incisive, or vindictive, or otherwise memorable, should not be rejected simply because they aren’t highly stylized, lack obscure references, and are presented in plain-spoken language. Which is, incidentally, the basis upon which Wordsworth and his Lyrical Ballads were initially rejected.
But what the literary elites are missing is that music lovers like the Beatles and Sinatra and Led Zeppelin or Ray Charles. Only an elitist like me loves Bob Dylan.
[See also, e.g., What to Put on Your iPod]