When the Swedish Academy announced on Oct. 13 that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, whole swathes of the terminally useless literati rent their turtleneck sweaters and gnashed their pretentious teeth in amusing frustration. Yet by awarding Dylan his much-deserved Nobel Prize, the Academy expanded the world’s understanding of what constitutes literature.
Some whined (presumably through the hot blur of furious tears) that Dylan’s win was an emotional, rather than rational, choice. In his typical shock-artist style, author Irvine Welsh called the selection “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” Similarly, Tim Stanley, a columnist for The Telegraph, pronounced: “A world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates [Donald] Trump for president.” Ironically, the arguments of these critics do not demonstrate the restraint they demand from the Nobel committee, relying instead on hyperbole.
Others criticized Dylan’s victory as a loss for the cause of diversity. One twitter user announced: “I don’t especially care about Bob Dylan. … I care that zero women won in any [Nobel] category this year.” Never mind the fact that two of the three Literature laureates before Dylan were women. Or that the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary is a woman. Or that Sweden is basically a socialist utopia. Still, these literary activists persevered in their belief that literature is not composed of the best books and writers but merely the most diverse.
Author Hari Kunzru questioned Dylan’s Nobel win for the infantile reason that “he’s famous.” “We all know his records already,” Kunzru mused. This view undermines the very purpose of the Nobel Prize. The Nobel is not awarded to the most obscure sub-Saharan African author; it is awarded for “the most outstanding work” in literature. Anything less would amount to grading on a curve and render the award meaningless: a sort of literary peace pipe passed around the various non-Western cultures until everyone feels included.
But while these literary agitators emphasize diversity and multiculturalism, they posit a bafflingly discriminatory view of what constitutes literature. In The New York Times, book critic Anna North asserted that Dylan did not deserve the Nobel because he is not a “novelist” or a “poet.” Stephen Metcalf of Slate wrote that Dylan’s oeuvre did not qualify as literature because literature “involves silently reading to oneself.”
If we are to follow this convoluted logic, then Shakespeare’s plays — writing’s sacred cow — are not literature, as they were intended to be performed and also are rife with phallic puns. These criticisms of Dylan’s victory imply that anything popular cannot be literature, forgetting Shakespeare’s plays were written to turn a profit and to entertain the masses. Yet, Shakespeare has come to be appropriated by academics. It is not unthinkable that Dylan will be studied in college classrooms centuries from now, even if today’s myopic literary world scorns him.
And why does it scorn him, exactly? The reasons are twofold. First, the literati reek of snobbery. They cannot allow the canonization of popular works. If this happens, the masses would no longer require the critics to tell them what to think of literature. A world where Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize is a world that no longer needs literary critics or scholars.
Second, these commentators misapprehend the fluid boundaries of different art forms, be it writing, the visual arts or music. Our conception of literature must account for the nonliterary forces that prompt authors to write — John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” for example, was inspired by the titular Parmigianino painting. As such, we must recognize that literature fits into a larger creative universe. The poetry of lyrics combines with music to make a song. This does not dilute literature; it magnifies it. Dylan’s literature is three-dimensional, enhanced by the nasal intonation of his jigsaw voice and the ambience of the rambling music that envelops it. To say Dylan’s work is not literary is to quarantine literature, and therefore to deprive it of interaction with the other art forms.
I imagine the reason people espouse this sentiment is that they do not possess knowledge of the expansiveness of art. They are specialists, reading and writing about reading and writing, but never pausing to consider that painting is just as close a cousin of poetry as prose.
An education in literature, which many of us hope to receive here at Yale, ought to include not just what is written, but also what is heard and seen. An English curriculum should focus not only on texts, but dramatic performances, movies, jazz and, yes, Bob Dylan’s songbook.
JOSHUA BAIZE is a freshman in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .