Image: Paul Townsend
The Nobel Prize for Literature. An award one might, certainly in my case, associate with novelists, poets, playwrights, screenplay writers, journalists and even philosophers or historians. But perhaps not songwriters.
However, the Swedish Academy (the body responsible for awarding the prize) have surprised the arts world by presenting this year’s accolade to US music legend Bob Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
When considering some of Dylan’s overwhelmingly powerful lyrics from his glittering career, his recognition as a Nobel Laureate becomes at least slightly more understandable. Take the following scathing example from his 1975 song ‘Idiot Wind’: “Idiot wind blowing every time you move your teeth/You’re an idiot, babe/It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”. This is just one sample from a cornucopia of poetic and lyrical gold.
What is perhaps more surprising has been Dylan’s complete failure to acknowledge his reception of a prize formally won by the likes of Albert Camus, Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill.
Dylan has attracted much derision for this. Certainly, the fact that a low-key update on the biographical page of his website that stated him to be “winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature” was removed just a couple of days after it initially appeared, seems evasive and even slightly discourteous. Academy member Per Wastberg has branded Dylan’s actions in ignoring his prize as both “impolite and arrogant”.
Indeed, the prize is widely considered to be at the zenith of achievement for those in the field of literature, and Dylan’s reception of the award has attracted criticism from other writers who don’t just disagree with his perceived contempt for the honour, but also the decision to award it to him in the first place. Irvine Welsh, the Scottish writer famed as the author of seminal stream-of-consciousness classic Trainspotting, has said that while he
is a massive Dylan fan, the decision is “an ill- conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies”.
In other words, it can be argued that awarding the prize to someone such as Dylan is an inadvisable attempt to draw attention and create headlines surrounding the accolade through popular nostalgia, regardless of the poetic merit of his lyrics.
Furthermore, to give recognition to such a well-known, respected and popular figure as Dylan seems more than a little sycophantic; a thinly-veiled attempt to gain awareness for the award through such a recognisable figure, at the expense of other, perhaps more deserving individuals within the field. A field which, it is worth noting, Dylan isn’t really part of. If you’re going to set the precedent of awarding the prize to musicians, then where does it end? Why not directors of film and theatre who come up with new ways of expressing literature on screen and stage? This broadening of what qualifies as literature only succeeds in blurring the lines of what is and isn’t part of the field.
Yet I feel that criticising Dylan over his silence regarding the matter is unfair. This is a man whose beliefs in pacifism have been entrenched in a great deal of his compositions throughout his career. It is unsurprising that he has stayed silent after being awarded something set up by Alfred Nobel, a man whose fortune was earned as the inventor of dynamite and leading manufacturer of armaments. The line “You that build all the bombs… I can see through your masks” from his 1963 song ‘Masters of War’ seems perfectly tailored for this situation. His silence represents nothing to me other than a commitment to his principles.
In this case, the criticism should fall solely on the Academy itself for what seems a whole-heartedly ill-advised decision. French-Moroccan author Pierre Assouline branded the decision as “contemptuous of writers”. The Academy have overlooked the varied merits of many within literature in favour of a wistful and hopefully headline-grabbing winner, something they should be careful of in future should they want the field to continue caring about the prize.