Why you should care
Because the critics never heard Dylan.
Other than the prize itself, Alfred Nobel’s most famous invention was dynamite, and the committees that have since handed out the Nobel Prize seem perpetually to honor a kind of explosiveness. This is perhaps especially true of the prize for literature, with so many highly flammable opinions and ideals at risk. Powerful: Here is a tiny group that gets not only to choose whom to snub year after year but also to snub to rapt, worldwide attention. Explosive: From the choice of a forgettable French poet named Sully Prudhomme over the greatest novelist of all time, Leo Tolstoy, to this month’s selecting of a pop musician, Bob Dylan, over, well, every writer out there who had no idea rock stars were even in the running — maybe the fireworks are just part of the fun.
One can’t help but to imagine those Nobel gods sitting back with big grins, watching The New York Times, Rolling Stone and a million blogs implode over, well, a bit of nothing. The most convincing complaint is that, in this time of waning interest in capital “L” Literature, with everyone’s eyes a-twittered and earholes iPlugged, the honor should have gone to a prose or poetry writer, not a pop icon. As a budding writer with my own worries about books as Kindling, algorithms based on tween page-flipping, and those ever-declining attention spans, I can empathize with this line of reasoning. And yet …
Can we stop for a moment and remember that the Nobel Prize is just some rich guy’s dying wish? That the kids aren’t really even paying attention? That no one has ever taken up serious reading because some book won a prestigious award? And, most important, that Bob Dylan is one of the best writers on the planet, regardless of the particular form he chose for expression?
French poet Paul Valéry wrote that “having verse set to music is like looking at a painting through a stained glass window.” But Valéry never heard Bob Dylan, and, all respect to the poet (also an essayist; did he don a different hat?), history reveals the losers in debates about art’s boundaries are always the wall builders. If you want to define literature, you don’t do it like a scientist, or like Adam in the garden naming the animals — this is this, that is that (woe is me). You don’t even do it with your eyes. You do it with your ears, iPlugged to your heart.
Have you noticed that the naysayers tend not to quote the man’s lyrics — to say, “Hey, this is why this isn’t literature”? The reason is simple: Doing so would undo their arguments, in a flash. Dylan is a master writer. When you hear lines like these, you don’t feel a need to define what it is. You feel awe:
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.
Go ahead, take that out of the context of music, see it as nothing more than words on a page. Let’s call it, for a moment, poetry. Dear God.
Never mind once you’ve heard the song. Forget literature. How about a Nobel in magic, or sorcery, or a Nobel Prize in what-world-is-this-person-from? I dare the naysayers to do better. Or to deny the truth — the absolute poetic, rhetorical truth — of this:
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
For the times they are a-changin’.