Over the last twenty-four hours or so, the odds of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize tomorrow have moved from 50-1 to 5-1, which makes him the current favorite. In my guide to betting the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature from Monday, I dismissed Dylan as a candidate because I thought the committee wouldn’t be interested in someone so unconventional. And that should have given me pause, as the Nobel of late has been characterized by unconventionality, and so Dylan becomes a fascinating potential laureate.
The following list of points isn’t intended as an apology for or an attack on the idea of Laureate Bob, but some thoughts about why Dylan might win and what it might say about our cultural moment.
1. Some would probably see such an announcement as somehow “bad” for literature, that perhaps the Nobel was straining for attention or that the state of world letters is somehow weak. I would go the other way and suggest that rather than an indictment of literature, this would be the ultimate legitimization of popular music. To my mind, popular music is now our poetry, and Dylan represents that shift as much as anyone. As technology for listening to music became just as available as printed poems, the advantage of paper literature, which had been on the rise since the invention of the printing press, began to wane. We sometimes forget, in our text-centric educational systems, that poetry was originally a performative genre, with bards sitting around and reciting poems in near-musical fashion. This, though, is hard to mass-produce and so the logistical advantage of print started to look like aesthetic superiority, just because more people could find, buy, own, and read poetry. So I think one way of seeing a Dylan win would be as a literary return rather than some sort of failure or trivialization of what we understand as literature.
2. I’ve never really thought about Dylan in quite these terms, but is there a major musician whose career is more language-dependent than Dylan? I mean, let’s be honest, he’s a hard singer to love, which makes his near-mythic status even more unbelievable. What if he had had a even average pop music voice? Would he still have created these kinds of lyrics? How much of his attention and interest in language was the product of a lack as much as it was a gift?
3. What would Dylan think of this? Would he be honored? Amused? Indifferent? Would this be the final fast-one in a career of plugging-in, finding Christ, and stripping back down?
4. Would this open the gate for some other “non-literary” literature laureates? Who would be next? Maybe a writer-director of some kind? In 25 years, is Charlie Kaufman or someone like that the first screenwriter? It seems like it’s only a matter of time before our idea of language-art has to expand to media that can’t be reproduced on paper.
5. For which songs is he being commended? There have been good albums in the last few decades, but the prime of his creativity and impact is 50-odd years in the past. So this raises the question not only of “which,” but also of “why now?”
6. Dylan’s work is so familiar that it can be difficult to even see it. I remember when The New Yorker published a couple of Dylan poems being surprised at how….poetic they seemed. If you had taken his name off and replaced it with some contemporary poet of whom I had never heard, I would have thought they were good, but not altogether different from a lot of good contemporary poetry.
7. But that led me to look at the lyrics to the enduring Dylan songs on their own, and this is where I was struck again by just how experimental, unflinching, and devastating Dylan can be. A verse of “Desolation Row”:
Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on penny whistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row.
8. You can see all of Dylan’s lyrics for free here. But again, is it the lyrics AND the music that would warrant the prize? How would the committee phrase their commendation. Do they mention the music or do they just refer to him as a poet? I’m weirdly interested in what the wording would be.
9. Paul Simon’s inferiority complex is buying cases of whisky, just in case.
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