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“The Times They Are A-Changin’” – Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize for Literature

Bob Dylan’s words rang true when the Nobel Foundation decided to award the Literature Prize to the iconic songwriter, whose only outright contribution to literature was his experimental prose poetry work, Tarantula, published in 1971.

The outcome has been polarising within both the music and literary industries, as fans of Dylan are conflicted by the decision to give the award to someone whose work was never intended to be read as literature. Some see it as a step in the right direction, praising the innovation within the long-standing award community to reach out to a larger, more diverse audience. If Dylan can win such an award, surely this means other lyrical geniuses, particularly rap artists, are eligible as well? However, many of the arguments in favour of this decision are fundamentally flawed. With this in mind, here are some of the principal justifications that have been thrust into discussions in recent weeks, all of which should and will be scrutinised.

Reason One: But Dylan has influenced literature!

Yes. Dylan’s lyrics echo throughout our culture. “Like a rolling stone” is as much a conversational idiom as W. B. Yeats’ “things fall apart” (Yeats won the prize in 1923).

However, the committee has made a categorical mistake akin to calling J. K. Rowling a great filmmaker because the Harry Potter series was made into films. The African Poet Laureate and 1986 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Wole Soyinka, rightly (if jokingly) asked if after this he is now eligible for a Grammy, given that he has written songs for many of his plays. Literature cannot be reduced to music and music cannot be reduced to literature.

Reason Two: But Dylan’s lyrics are a type of poetry!

Sort of. Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy likened Dylan to ancient Greek poets like Homer and Sappho, whose texts “were meant to be listened to […] often together with instruments,” though they can also be enjoyed whilst being read. She also suggests that reading Dylan’s lyrics is a worthwhile endeavour. Danius is an intimidating scholar to challenge, given her extensive work in literary criticism and multiple prestigious appointments. But her word choice suggests she is thinking more of poetry read aloud to music rather than sung with music. As the University’s English Literature department is constantly reminding students who try to use Pink Floyd on poetry exams, song lyrics cannot usually be read as poems because of the different rhythm the singing gives to the text.

An example is in one of Dylan’s most famous songs, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin,’ where the length he sings certain words with determines the syllables that have emphasis. Such tonation is not possible when the words are simply spoken aloud. Attempting to reconfigure the piece as a work of poetry is difficult and the result is imperfect for a number of reasons: first, because it is impossible to not read in Dylan’s singing voice; and second, because the rhythm does not work without the musical stresses.

To read Dylan is to miss a point; it loses something. Most definitions of literature require artistic merit to be in the reading of the text itself. As Dylan’s artistry is partly in the music, it is wrong to call his songs the same as poetry.

Reason Three: But nobody really reads anymore!

One might ask why we should continue giving awards to niche artists who make little impact on the world, when there are giants like Dylan whose art reaches pretty much everyone all over the world? In short: literature is dying, pop music is thriving! In a particularly silly article on Quartz, Bob Dylan’s award, combined  with a statistic claiming teens are reading fewer books, lead to the hyperbolic conclusion that we as a society no longer care about books, despite the fact that adult reading levels are currently stable. Regardless, it is unlikely that the Swedish Academy has had such ideas influence their prize giving. It is almost worth considering the fact, that those responsible for this decision are a collection of eighteen authors, literary critics, and linguists.

As a literature student, it is difficult to go against my academic superiors, as the Swedish Academy clearly are. However, in line with the media attention regarding Dylan’s delayed response towards the accolade, I still cannot help but wonder if they have somewhat missed the point with this years’ prize.

Photo credit: Xavier Badosa

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