A fun exercise I like to torture myself with: Think of a famous person over 70. Now imagine how insufferable Twitter will be with hot takes on the day they die. For as long as I have been playing this game, I have assumed Bob Dylan would be the apex. I woke up this morning to find what I've been dreading: The laudatory superlatives and the actually, he's bad's have arrived. Ever the visionary, though, Bob Dylan didn't even have to die to have his day on Twitter. Instead, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
I should say that, to me, Bob Dylan is good. I'm not a rabid fan, but I think that if someone wants to argue that Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter ever, that's as acceptable of an answer as anyone. Even if you feel allergic to his iconic 60s folk ballads about changin' times (though I'd invite you to seriously listen to "Like a Rolling Stone" again and honestly say that it doesn't fucking rule), his output from 1970's New Morning to 1976's Desire is unparalleled, and even the early-80s records have moments of transcendence ("Lenny Bruce," "Jokerman," the photo on the front of Infidels). In my adult life, I've spent more free time reading than doing anything else, but I've almost definitely spent more hours listening to Bob Dylan than I have reading all but a handful of particular writers. Still, I'm not exactly thrilled that he won the Nobel Prize.
Part of the problem, of course, is that Bob Dylan is a musician. (Yes, Dylan has published a memoir and a book of prose poetry, but the award was given "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.") The "are lyrics poetry?" debate has been long and contentious. On the one hand, the revolving door between songwriting and poetry is a busy one, trafficked by critically praised poets like Leonard Cohen and David Berman, and also Billy Corgan. Plus, everything from YouTube comments on classic-rock songs to baseball-game transcriptions gets counted as poetry, so why not pop music? On the other hand, insisting that Dylan (or Kendrick Lamar, or whomever) are actually poets kind of implies that their chosen artistic mediums lack validity. Is music literature? Sure, but the more important thing is that music is music.
At its best, the Nobel serves to elevate one deserving writer to the level of greatness.
The larger issue is how we consume literature. Reading is an active experience, something that's meant to be challenging. Literature is often boring, or at least less immediately exciting than doing almost anything else. When I was trying figure out how to convey the point I wanted this sentence to make, I thought, Reading is like exercising in that it's not usually fun when you do it, but it makes you feel like a better person after. I apologize for passing along such a lame idea, but it's basically how I feel.
Listening to music is a much more immediate experience. Popular music is designed to be enjoyable. It's also passive. No matter how experimental or challenging a record is, you just have to press play. You might not like it, but you can finish it. You can listen to music in the shower, or while driving, or while typing an essay. If I've spent more time listening to Bob Dylan than I have reading the great writers, it's not because I like Dylan more. It's because my life is filled with situations in which it's appropriate to listen to music, but not appropriate to read books.
Music is everywhere in our society, blasting from cars, playing at the grocery store, auto-playing in banner ads. Our biggest celebrities are musicians, or at least married to them. There are numerous reality shows about discovering the next big act; meanwhile, America's Next Top MFA Student remains but a dream. Some have used Bob Dylan's win to suggest that there should be a Nobel for music; setting aside that this would be a complete clusterfuck, famous musicians already have the Grammys and capitalism.
Literature doesn't occupy nearly the same role in popular culture. Sure, there are plenty of authors who make decent livings, but it's not like Jonathan Franzen gets mobbed when he walks down the street. At its best, the Nobel serves to elevate one deserving writer to the level of greatness. In recent years, this has generally been people with fairly minor profiles in America, like Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich or Chinese novelist Mo Yan. The winner never pleases everyone—picking a single recipient from among all living writers never could—but it's at least a chance to remind the larger public that serious literature exists, and to give one person a nice boost in book sales.
In recent years, there's been a trend of art museums trying to attract mass audiences by appealing to popular tastes. Think of the Museum of Modern Art's much-maligned Björk retrospective, or the hours-long lines to get into the Rain Room. It's a way to bring new attention to an aging institution, despite the fact that they have to bend their purpose to do so. Today's decision by the Nobel Prize Committee certainly feels similar, like a ploy to make the prize seem relevant, rather than a celebration of an artistic career. No one has remained as famous, as artistically respected, and as commercially successful as Bob Dylan has been for the last 50 years. He doesn't need the Nobel Prize, too.
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