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Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize: An Odious, Tokenistic Insult To Pop
David Bennun , October 14th, 2016 09:17

Yesterday Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, prompting much wailing & gnashing of the teeth. David Bennun argues this was a patronising affront to the noble art of pop

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Bob Dylan, Nobel laureate. A new fact so shocking that even the year's most notable deaths have not outdone it for the volume (in both senses) of instant reaction; so divisive, it makes Brexit, the Labour leadership and the US Presidential election seem lesser ruptures. Those, at least, have each cleaved to two main positions, tending to align along social fault lines.

No siloing here, though. Opinion is not just split, it is fragmented, and one's circle of acquaintance contains multitudes of it. First, it separates into camps of Yea, Nay, and Wahey! That is, those who think it's a very good thing, those who are agin' it, and those who think it a splendid jape - and who may also cross over into one of the other two camps, usually the second.

The Yeas are relatively uniform. They view Dylan as one of the greatest artists of his or any era, who deserves to be taken as seriously as any litterateur. Where they vary is in some cases not even accepting the distinction: Dylan in their eyes is a literary titan, and the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature is simply official affirmation of what they already knew. The general sentiment among the Yeas is, no accolade is too high for their man; and the Nobel being, literally, the gold standard among prizes, it is surely his due.

The Nays are more diverse. First of all, there are those who simply don't care for Dylan, or at least, don't think he's that great. Some of the former sound very much as if they are afflicted with the kind of contrarianism inevitably bred by cultural orthodoxy - Dylan is overwhelmingly rated a giant and a marvel, the acclamation of whom they feel to be de rigueur; and rather than judge for themselves, they embrace the opposite view. This impulse - which like most contrarianism is in essence the narcissistic negative of conformity - becomes somewhat easier to sympathise with when set against the most ardent Bob fans and obsessive Dylanologists. Next to these, Beliebers and Directioners seem well-balanced, open-minded and tolerant of critical dissent.

Plenty more of the Nays sound perfectly sincere, though. They may genuinely dislike Dylan; they may even enjoy or admire him, but just don't think he's all that. Fair enough. The reaction of such folk seems to be chiefly amazement tinged with befuddlement: they've given him what? You're kidding me. With such folk, one can have no argument. It really is a matter of taste, and de gustibus..., and all that.

Yet another variety of Nay is that which thinks the Nobel committee has made a glaring category error. The prize is for literature. Dylan is a songwriter. Here is where the argument starts to get interesting, because here is where it is no longer a question of either cultural orthodoxy or personal taste. I have seen quite a few folk whom I know to be both fair minded and, as it happens, Dylan fans, take up cudgels for this position. To them, it's not necessarily that Dylan doesn't merit the highest honour. It's that he doesn't merit this specific highest honour, in the way a champion pole vaulter shouldn't be given a medal for the long jump. It is in this group that the Wahey!s are mainly to be found, firing off jests, or mock solemnly reciting Dylan's sillier lyrics as if these are entirely representative of his oeuvre.

The question now becomes about defining your terms. What is literature? Unless we allow it to encompass the oral tradition from which it grew, which means taking it back to Homer and beyond, it demands the written word - poetry and prose. Dylan is no slouch at the written word, both in its own right, and transcribed from his lyrics, which have often been acclaimed as poetry and may well stand up as such. But that is not his métier. He is principally a recording artist, and if he weren't, it is unthinkable he would have had such an impact. He is to be heard first and read second. Well, what about plays, you could reasonably ask. Is Shakespeare not great literature? Yes, obviously: but his work is great literature even to those who have never known it performed. The same is evidently not true of Dylan. Without music, there is not the faintest chance his words would now be garlanded as they are. And lyrics should not need to stand on their own; many of Dylan's do, but in common with other great lyricists, he has written plenty that falters on the page but soars in song.

On another front of the category-error argument are the insufferable fogeys who think the award is an outrage upon literature itself. That the problem is not simply a mistake may have been made about definitions, but that awful vulgarians are encroaching upon their sacred places. Dylan, to them, is the harbinger of the low-culture mob; the latest in an unending number of final straws, or the thin end of a wedge that never seems to get thicker. They have a curious mirror image and inadvertent ally in diehard Poptimists, another subset of the Nay/Wahey! crossover, whose view might be summarised as, "LOL whut!? Calm down dear, it's only pop music..." As if taking pop music lightly, which is one of the great joys of it, precludes also taking it seriously, which is another. All doctrine is ultimately the death of joy - even when the doctrine is the elevation of the light above the serious, because joy is too varied and elusive ever to confine itself to one or the other.

This, at last, brings me to my own view about Dylan's Nobel prize. Which is, I'm firmly in the Nay camp. I do think the award is a category error, but that's not why. Not in itself. What bothers me is the perceived status of the categories. If pop lyricists were routinely considered for the prize as are authors and poets, I'd still think it mistaken, but I wouldn't much care. But I am quite certain that Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, for example, both at the very least Dylan's equals as writers, have never been in the running and never will be. The award is no affront to literature; it is an insult to pop music. It is a condescending ruffle of pop's hair while handing it a lollipop. An act of beaming condescension whose transparent message is: "This one guy, and just this one guy, he's so good, he transcends his trivial idiom and elevates himself into our significant one." In that, it continues something which has been going on long enough - 50-plus years - to become a tradition of its own: the singling out of Dylan as a special case in what is by implication dismissed as an inherently inferior medium. The point is not that Dylan doesn't need a Nobel to attest to how good he is (although he doesn't.) It's that pop music, pop music of any kind, doesn't need the Nobel committee to damn it with the faint praise of such an award to its sole chosen representative. "Look, dear! How adorable. When pop music tries its very hardest, it can be almost as good as Sven Hassel."

There's no reason - not yet, anyway - to believe Dylan himself endorses such an attitude; or that he would think of himself as a more profound and worthy recipient than, for instance, any of the brilliant Motown or girl-group lyricists who are more likely to be awarded a Nobel prize for chemistry than for literature. Whether there is more truth and humanity in his best lyrics than in Abba's, or less, is unquantifiable, and it would be meretricious to attempt such a calculation in contesting an argument he has been dragged into. The same is true of ranking him thus against any work of literature. He has been made, through no fault of his own, the object of odious tokenism. Pop music, across its countless iterations, is a vast, amazing, thrilling art form. All life is in it. It stands for itself. The same is true of literature, but nobody feels compelled to toss Philip Roth a grammy just to prove it. If they did, I hope he would tell them where they could stick it. Dylan may, for whatever reasons of his own, do nothing of the sort with the Nobel committee. Up there on Parnassus, that is his unquestionable prerogative. But here on my anthill, it's mine to say: oh, do piss off, you ineffable snobs.

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Oct 14, 2016 10:17am

Thank you
St.bob is just to much
Love your article

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Bloke in Wiltshire
Oct 14, 2016 10:29am

I've always had a sense that the love of Dylan comes from ticking all the Rockist boxes. If he'd made upbeat songs, if he'd put on a shiny suit, if he'd had backing dancers, if he'd used synths and autotune, he wouldn't be as big and respected as he is. He's the purest of the pure to these people.

And on the page, his lyrics are pretty weak. There's not much there that makes me think "damn", in a way that even Morrissey can. I never feel pictures being painted or being touched by his words. I think Paul Simon has a greater sense of poetry, but of course, he isn't as pure as Dylan.

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Oct 14, 2016 10:59am

You missed out an important category
I guess we could be the 'agnostic' camp
Those who wonder why the fuck anybody still gives the slightest damn in tokenistic 'prizes'

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Oct 14, 2016 11:03am

"The question now becomes about defining your terms" – when you realise how badly this writer wades into what has been an ongoing conversation for centuries (the terms of literariness) you realise it's not at all beyond the realms of sanity for someone like Dylan to win this prize. Literature is no longer reserved to the written word, so the writer is just openly displaying ignorance about that. Writing is more about iterability than it is about the shape of letters. To add to this the orality of literature is still a fact of the modern day, it is still practiced and it is still how a great number of people consume literature, it's just not prominent in Western Europe. And plus, other memory technologies now exist beyond words on a page, so there is absolutely no reason at all to confine literariness simply to the medium of words on a page beyond simplistic conservatism. It might come as a shock but we can now put data on CDs or hard drives or USB sticks, and this opens up a world of possibilities. There is no good reason to discount the literary nature of songs, seeing as the vast majority of the major poetic works of medieval *literature* in Europe would have been sung, and since the process of interpretation is not replaced but enhanced by music. Music and its performance would have been just as important to the audience of the Chanson de Roland as it is for someone listening to Dylan, and this is a good thing. Once you eliminate all these qualms, you're only left with an argument about how tasteful it is for a pop singer to get a prize for capital-L Literature. I would say if you're looking for pop not getting its due, take it up with the committee of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

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Oct 14, 2016 1:22pm

In reply to :

I don't really care one way or the other to be frank. Arguments about cultural affiliation with oral histories has never been a huge consideration of the Nobel committee. Tenuous and just as righteous in fact. Not sure why it needs to start here; not a slap in the face of course to either party, but rather, well, odd. It isn't like the bloke put his own name forward for such bombast.

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Bloke in Sussex
Oct 14, 2016 2:21pm

In reply to Bloke in Wiltshire:

You do understand, though, that Dylan didn't so much "tick all the Rockist boxes", but actually pretty much created them.
And that your disdain for Rockism is as transient and a product of the times you live in, as Dylan's choice to express himself through folk-derived forms is of his.
I can just picture somebody writing in 50 years' time:"I've always had a sense that the love of Grimes comes from ticking all the Poptimist boxes. If she'd made downbeat songs, if she'd put on a trench coat, if he'd had backing fiddlers, if she'd used guitars and actually sang, she wouldn't be as big and respected as she is..."

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Bloke in Sussex
Oct 14, 2016 2:23pm

In reply to Bloke in Sussex:

For "Grimes" read "Beyoncé".

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Oct 14, 2016 2:33pm

The funniest thing - for anyone who read Dylan's Musiccares speech - is that he cares even less about this award than the millions of critics moaning about this. Dylan hasn't even publicly commented on the award. Everyone is trying to compare him to someone, or reduce him to something. He is an individual artist who struck a different note in the 60s like many others at the time. Some people love him, some people hate him. The people who hate him feel this need to qualify it. Why bother.

Personally I thought it was a nice gesture, if perhaps politically motivated. I don't see why some of his work can't be considered literary. Time obliterates forms, introduces new approaches, things form new synthesis. If anything his award tells us a great deal about the state of things.

I wonder if people sneered when photography or film superseded art and theatre, then did those same people watch as art and theatre incorporated both forms and marched onwards.

To quote the victim: "everything passes, everything changes, just do what you think you should do"

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Oct 14, 2016 3:03pm

From your ill conceived title to your unsatisfactory conclusion, your turgid prose fails to support your position. The Nobel Committee is free to award a Literature Prize to anyone they choose. You have no say in the matter. Your taxes do not support the Nobel Committee's decision or who they award. You have no skin the game.

As for your prose, you fail to define "odious tokenism". Tokenism is defined (per Google search) as "the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.". How does this definition relate in any way to the issue at hand, as you have expressed it? Answer: It does not.

As suggested in previous comments, there are other groups you fail to address - the indifferent, the amused, the detached, etc. Ironically, for a column that ostensibly facilitates unorthodox ideas and opinions, your ideas are remarkably pedestrian and common. Specifically, you suggest that one may select one of (only) two camps - supporters and detractors. As exemplified, this is not the case.

Some suggestions for your next piece: Butter versus Margarine. Tomato - fruit or vegetable? Pop music - "vast, amazing, thrilling art form" or one of many options to pass one's time prior to merging with the infinite? So little time, so much space to fill...

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Oct 14, 2016 3:53pm

This is interesting. I came in thinking I was going to hate you and what I anticipated would be a smug article. I'm not sure I completely agree with the opinions in your last two paragraphs, but I understand where you are coming from. It makes sense. As a comic book fan, I feel the same way about Watchmen and Alan Moore. Maybe I should feel the same about this Dylan thing. Thanks for making me think critically.

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A. Stockholmer
Oct 14, 2016 6:30pm

WIll Bob Dylan accept this prize ? If he still means what he says in "Masters of War" he wouldn´t. Alfred Nobel was a major weapons (Bofors Cannons), gunpowder and dynamite manufacturer and the Nobel Prize Group is still sponsored by the weapons industry:

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Oct 14, 2016 9:16pm

Len and Joni are not in the same league as Bob. Transients, dilettantes, in comparison.

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Oct 14, 2016 11:11pm

Stringent thoughts.
Thank you very much.

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Oct 15, 2016 2:19am

Great, really great article. Given that the award is based on merit, consistency, and overall change to writing in general and considering was never bestowed upon Henry James or Sondheim (arguably much better than Dylan) should suggest that it has less to do with his medium and more to do with Dylan's actual craft and the relevance his craft had on his and subsequent generations. This is a big honor and while I agree that folks never would have come to his work hadn't it not been for the actual songs, the award is agnostic to where his writing located itself.

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Oct 15, 2016 3:32am

"The prize is for literature. Dylan is a songwriter." Please, he writes spoken poetry. The people opposed to this don't like him as a singer. Fine. A trillion people have covered his poetry and will long after he is gone. Look at the list of Nobel Literature Laureates (that last American, Toni Morrison in 1993, was a politically correct joke) and say he is not more deserving than half.

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Oct 15, 2016 3:39am

In reply to Paul:

I agree about Sondheim, who is the contemporary equivalent of Gershwin; but, his work can't exist outside the book and the score. Dylan's poetry, like his mentor Woodie Guthrie's, does. And, his work defined an era. That's tough to do.

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Oct 15, 2016 4:21pm

In the 'Ney' camp, an awful lot of his lyrics when you strip them from their musical accompaniment. Agreed. Also in the 'Ney' camp, such an official endorsement from a prize that takes its name from the inventor of dynamite is as blatent an act of tooth pulling as can be imagined. Ye Masters of War, indeed. But. In the 'Yea' camp, for the mighty Chronicles, a book of such understated genius as to justify the prize in and of itself. At least as good as Hemmingway's The Old Man and The Sea, which is for what that old curmudgeon got the same prize. And in the 'Wahay' camp, because it's Dylan. Bobby fucking Dylan, ok X

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Oct 15, 2016 5:02pm

Naturally, if Mitchell or Cohen had won, people would complain that, if the committee wished to honor an old songwriter, they should have picked someone more influential, e.g. Bob Dylan, without whose success, record labels might never have chanced it on the likes of Cohen & Mitchell.

Dylan wrote a ton of songs. Of course not all of it reads well on the page; neither does all of Yeats's work.

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Oct 15, 2016 7:40pm

The real question would be whether this return to orality (quoting MacLuhan) warrants saying f** you to Guttenberg, which is what this prize is ultimately doing. Halliday and others stressed the important differences between written and spoken language, and for a long time Literature used to show us the written word to be beautiful too and not just practical like it is is legal documents etc. Poetry was the bridge that showed language had its OWN music, to the extent poems need only be recited or read aloud (not sung, not hummed) in order to show their beauty. I'm not saying the written word is superior, I'm just saying that historically, for centuries before recorders and photos existed, the print was the only technology to bring art to massive amounts of people, and to give the award that was supposed to ackowledge that to an oral artist is really like saying, f** you Guttenberg, humanity and history didn't need you...

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Mike Lucas
Oct 15, 2016 7:42pm

Something happening here, but you don't know what it is. Do You Dave? Get out of the tower before your struck by flowers.

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Oct 16, 2016 10:20am

I'm defintely in the Nay cathegory. I think the Nobel prize should be about literature. I'm from Denmark. If I want to read something by Dylan in Danish, I have to go for Tarantula. That's his only novel. I don't even know if it's translated into my language. But I have seen some lyrics translated into Danish. It is not a pretty sight. Lyrics translated but Danish poets. It's quite awful. It's like looking in a pretentious fifteen year old wanna be poet's secret notebook.
Dylan's lyrics cannot stand translation and that is a big problem.
His lyrics are depending on the music. And together it is beautiful, funny, clever. It's a beautiful co-dependency. As is Television, the smiths, Bruce Springsteen etc etc
Nobel prize may be critiqued in many ways. But it has always celebrated quality literature, The ideal is Virginia Wolf, Henry James, Ts Eliot, Strindberg. Not every awarded author is up there with them but it's a goal

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Bo Lagerqvist
Oct 16, 2016 11:51am

In reply to Alexa:

Hello from Stockholm !
Virgina Wolf didn´t get the prize, neither did Strindberg. Anyway this Nobel Prize Group project must be stopped:

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Oct 16, 2016 12:36pm

In reply to Bo Lagerqvist:

Hej Bo, Alexa fra Köpenhamn haer! Hi Bo, Alexa from Copenhague here. No - I know they didn't win the Nobel prize, and excuse me for not being clear enough. I mean: the litterary IDEAL, the standards, the measure, are very high when it comes to the Nobel prize. You'll never see Dan Brown getting it, while Philip Roth and Adunis are much talked about when it comes to worthy winners. And look at the back catalogue. I think Dylan looks totally out of place there.
I have talked with relatives and friends and the Naey is dominating. Most of them are avid fans and they STILL think it's an erroneous choice.

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Oct 17, 2016 2:50am

I find it difficult to believe that this prize has anything to do with Dylan but rather represents a further attempt for the boomer generation to imprint its narcissistic self-regard on the most canonical of all canons, the Nobel Prize. Giving the prize to Dylan in 1966 might have said something. Giving it to him in 2016 speaks only to the incessant need for a bunch of old white male sellouts to pathetically grasp for significance as their face their deaths. Apparently it's not enough that the entire doctrinal system continues to mash the experiences of new generations into the hackneyed boomer template.

Interesting to note: Garcia Marquez was awarded the prize at a time when it was provocative to award it to a "third world" writer who was vehemently critical of American imperialism in Latin America. Dylan - at one time accused of spousal abuse, who never once wrote a song about a woman that didn't fit into the primitive Madonna/whore binary - was given the award after appearing in Victoria Secret advertisements while a bloated buffoon trivializes sexual assault in his campaign to be president. Gues the times really were a-changin'.

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Joke in Wiltshire
Oct 17, 2016 2:54am

In reply to Bloke in Wiltshire:

See Empire Burlesque for the synths. The shiny suits came later. And yes, his background singers on more than one of his fundamentalist tantrum tours approximated something resembling dancing.

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Oct 17, 2016 9:05am

Yes, this puts into words a lot of my own reservations about Dylan getting the Nobel Prize.
My own rather feeble definition of a great songwriter is someone who writes songs like no one else, and so Bob Dylan would certainly fit that criteria.
Musically, I find him to be one of those artists where a little goes a long way, not unlike Kate Bush, Tom Waits or Bjork.
For certain, pop music has depth and even at it's most lightweight it can touch people so it is profound in that sense. Can it be viewed as art? Yes, of course, but I would say it's best to see it as popular art as opposed to high art so the Nobel Prize for literature shouldn't really come into it.

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Oct 17, 2016 7:39pm

In reply to Bloke in Wiltshire:

That's likely true, but don't forget that Dylan was booed and excoriated as "impure" himself when he went electric. It's all relative.

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Oct 20, 2016 8:46pm

In reply to Bloke in Wiltshire:

"I never feel pictures being painted or being touched by his words." Then you've never honestly listened to what was being said in his songs. How utterly pathetic.

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mrs. george
Oct 22, 2016 6:00pm

the party that remains nameless: what s/he/you said. and i love me some dylan.

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David Holzer
Oct 26, 2016 12:08pm

Whoever took on this subject from inside rock and roll/pop was going to be on a little bit of a hiding to nothing. But this writer is right to say that there are many lyricists who are every bit the equal of Bob.

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Oct 27, 2016 11:03pm

You are wrong - he is to be read first and heard second

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G David Schwartz
Nov 12, 2016 4:16am

Its about time

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