What is literature? Most people would answer this with reference to novels or collections of short stories. The Nobel Prize committee took a different view in 2016, causing much debate about this topic. So what did they do that was so controversial? They awarded Bob Dylan the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Many argued that songwriting did not count as literature and was a separate discipline. Others disagreed leading to a lot of consternation and controversy among authorly types. Dylan himself seemed relatively unaffected by the debate and didn’t even acknowledge the honour for the first couple of weeks after the announcement – which had the effect of heightening the debate. He also declined the traditional Nobel banquet winners usually attend, citing other commitments, which led some to assume he was going to turn down the award. However, he later send what was regarded as a “warm” letter thanking the committee for the honour. Dylan was then given six months to deliver a Nobel lecture and accept his prizemoney – which was worth a cool US$1.1 Million.
He only just made it – giving the lecture in the last month of his eligibility. You can hear the speech in this clip:
Dylan addresses the controversy of his nomination quite openly: “When I received the Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering how exactly my songs related to literature.”
He goes on to relate how his own experiences reading literature informed his songwriting and pretty much argues that there is a definite literary sensibility to his songs.
I certainly have appreciated the folk storytelling in the few Dylan songs I know well, like Hurricane, Maggie’s Farm and Rolling Stone. The poetic storytelling is something which elevates the songs above other songs to give them a greater sense of meaning. So, I can accept the Nobel committee’s view that they constitute a “new poetic expression”. As such the songs, to me, fall under the category of literary expression.
I can’t be the only one with this view as the rules for nominating someone for a Nobel Prize are quite strict and for literature you have to be nominated twice before you can win the award. The award considers a ‘body of work’ rather than individual text. The nominator must usually be an academic (professor) and a person cannot self-nominate. So some scholarly person or people felt strongly enough about Dylan’s work to nominate him (at least) twice.
Next time I’ll talk about the recipient of a different award – the Pulitzer prize and the hullabaloo created by her second novel.
This post is part of my Great Moments in Literature series. So you never miss a new Great Moment, please subscribe to my list or this website.