The choice of Nobel laureates for literature falls into three main categories:
- justly deserved;
- surely there were others more deserving, and
- incomprehensible and/or bizarre.
Glancing down the list from 2016 back to the first winner, Sully Prudhomme from France – a writer who has certainly not withstood the weathering of time – I would include In the first category: Doris Lessing (2007), J.M. Coetzee (2003) Szymborska (1996), Derek Walcott (1992), Nadine Gordimer (1991) Joseph Brodsky (1987), Milosz (1980), Saul Bellow (1976), Patrick White (1973), Neruda (1971), Pasternak (1958), T.S. Eliot (1948), Thomas Mann (1929), Yeats (1923), to name just a few. Indeed, the Nobel Committee gets it right, or close to right, surprisingly often.
Taste is a major factor in the second category. I am not drawn to the work of Hemingway (1954), Alice Munro (2013) and V.S. Naipaul (2001) but many readers are. As for the third category, Pearl Buck has become representative of those who were chosen to the astonishment of all but the committee. But she is far from being alone in this third group.
Many of the winning writers have been politically active both on the page and off. Alfred Nobel stated that the prize would be given to an author who has produced ‘in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’ (emphasis added). This requirement might help explain that small group of winners like Winston Churchill (1953), Bertrand Russell (1950) and possibly Jean-Paul Sartre (1964) who actually declined the prize, writers who warrant praise for so much of their work, but not, it seems to me, for any literature that flowed from their pen. Winners like Churchill and Russell have excited heated controversy. Indeed, over the 100+ years of the prize controversy has been a major player. And no more so with the choice of Bob Dylan for the 2016 Laureate.
I think Dylan is an inspired choice.
By anyone’s estimation I would be considered a serious reader. Many of the Nobel winners figure among my favourites: Mann, Eliot, Yeats, Russell (yes, although I would not have given him the prize), Camus, Gide, Neruda, Patrick White, Eugenio Montale, Saul Bellow, the utterly essential Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Gordimer, Szymborska, Coetzee, Doris Lessing. I’ve read Proust, my comfort reading is Jane Austen, I belong to a small group that discusses a different Shakespeare play every month. I read widely in contemporary fiction, and I always have a volume of non-fiction and another of poetry on the go. People have been surprised that a serious literary person like me would celebrate the awarding of the world’s premier literary prize to a singer-songwriter.
Dylan is not a great poet and he’s not the greatest lyricist who ever lived – of the moderns that prize might possibly go to Col Porter – but I do think he was deserving of the Nobel.
The selection committee chose Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ This is a restrained, vague even coy citation, I’m not even sure I know what it means. ‘New poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’ is ambiguous, and one of the interpretations is a contradiction. But leaving that aside, I think the Committee’s citation is off the mark.
Dylan was the voice of a generation. Even more than this, he provided the words to a generation wanting to break with tradition, with the past, with political leaders, with parents. This was a generation growing to adulthood under the threat of nuclear destruction, in a world where the separation between rich and poor was widening, where unions (at least in the USA) were weakening, and workers were being squeezed. Dylan burst on the scene in the 1960s and for the next decade or two his songs expressed what the alienated youth of the time were feeling. He was anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons, he protested injustice, he sang for the worker, the immigrant and the poor.
Dylan’s songs were anthems for the time. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ (1963-4), ‘Masters of War’ (1963), ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1962), ‘I Am a Lonesome Hobo’ (1968), ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ (1968). Dylan expressed uncomfortable truths, and he gave direction for those who no longer trusted the old leaders.
As a teenager I would sit around with friends and we would sing Dylan songs. This was not an occasional happening. Most weeks, a group of kids would descend on our house, and accompanied by guitars and bongos and occasionally the piano we would sing – folk songs, Pete Seeger, what were known in those days as Negro Spirituals (I don’t know what the politically correct term is these days), Peter Paul and Mary (who often sang Dylan), and the master himself.
Dylan’s songs introduced us to people, places, politics and events far beyond suburban, middle-class Melbourne. And they taught us not to take things on faith or trust. They taught us to question authority, tradition and traditional institutions like the church, the family, the military.
And Dylan’s songs also taught about love – not in a gauzy, dewy-eyed way like most of the offerings on the Top 40, but honestly. A half a century on ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ remains one of the most brutally honest songs about love.
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no,. no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for babe
(It Ain’t Me, Babe, 1964)
Some have criticised the choice of Dylan because, they say, the lyrics cannot be separated from the music. But they can, they have a different effect, a different power when read as poetry rather than song lyrics with the music playing in your mind. The best analogy is reading a Shakespeare play as against seeing it performed. No one suggests that the plays of Shakespeare are any less worthy on the page rather than the stage. And I think the same goes for Dylan.
Others have criticised the choice of Dylan, not because he is a songwriter, but rather he was the wrong songwriter to receive the prize. These people say that Leonard Cohen should have been the candidate.
I am a lifelong fan of the work of both Cohen and Dylan, but for the politics and the history, for the courage and uncompromising gaze, for the breadth of material Dylan is my choice. This is not to suggest that all his lyrics are breathtakingly good, there are some that are shoddy and banal. But as Somerset Maugham wisely noted: only the mediocre man is always at his best.
And there are those who insist that song-writing is not poetry, in the same way that in the early days of film there were those who insisted that film was not legitimate performance like theatre. There are poets who find their calling through pop songs – Dorothy Porter was one such poet – who see the modern song-writer within the context of poetry’s fluid boundaries. The conjoining of music and poetry is an ancient coupling, witness the minstrels of old wandering from village to village in days long gone.
Are there other writers more deserving of the prize? My reading is very much in the European and English-speaking traditions, so I can’t speak for African and Asian writers. I hope one day the Polish-American poet Adam Zagajewski gets a gong; I think it was inexcusable that the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (died 2001) was never selected. But in the choice of Bob Dylan for the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature, I am surprised that the committee was willing to take such a risk, but very pleased they did.