Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize in Literature, announced today, has provoked outrage among American intellectuals hoping for a foreign underdog like Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk or Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, to take two examples close to my own heart. One writer friend of mine called Dylan's Nobel "a disgrace"; another suggested his massage therapist can now reasonably expect the Nobel Prize for Medicine next year. But as a translator of Tokarczuk into English, and a former student of Yevtushenko, I'm not outraged. In fact, to my mind, Dylan is the perfect choice for this year's prize.
According to the New York Times, Stockholm's announcement comes as a shock. But, really, it shouldn't be such a surprise. For decades, Dylan has received support for a Nobel from writers all over the world. For those betting on the outcome this year, Dylan was a contender, too—Ladbrokes listed his odds lower than Philip Roth's but higher than Joan Didion's, Lydia Davis's, and Karl Ove Knausgaard's.
Yet many American critics have been, well, dismissive. Last week the New Republic published a story titled, "Who Will Win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature," a question answered succinctly in the subtitle: "Not Bob Dylan, that's for sure."
Nowhere in the Nobel mandate does it say the prize must be given to someone who isn't famous. More important, nowhere does it say anywhere that Americans should be so overwhelmingly ignorant about who is and isn't famous, or valuable, in the vast world that does exist outside our borders.
To go back to the examples I gave initially, Olga Tokarczuk is a best-selling writer in Poland (and elsewhere in Europe), whose nuanced social critique has sparked massive controversy of the sort Americans ought to take the time to care about, since the slide of central Europe into a series of repressive, reactionary regimes will take its toll on geopolitics worldwide if left unchecked. At the height of his career, Yevgeny Yevtushenko packed crowds of 50,000 people into stadiums where he recited work like "Babi Yar," a poem on the Holocaust.
Too few Americans keep track of writers like these and of the issues they broach in their writing. But no one would dream of denying their significance to world culture. Dylan, whatever your personal opinion of his work, is no different.
Artists and art forms often get appreciated in their nations of origin only after being recognized elsewhere. Both Borges and tango came into Argentine fashion after sweeping France. As it happens, I discovered Dylan in Paris, at a 2012 exhibition at the Cité de la musique. I had not grown up listening to his music, but I was struck then by the potency of his lyrics, whether when engaging with zeitgeists or getting at more-basic existential issues.
For literature to do anything at all, it must reach readers and listeners; Bob Dylan is a wonderful example of doing just this.
Is the problem that these lyrics seemingly need music to make them make sense, thereby removing them from the purview of literature proper? Yevtushenko's poetry is often song-like, participating in a major trend in Slavic poetry to blur or even erase the line between lyric and verse. Poetry began as music, after all, and to this day, it remains most relevant when it stays true to those roots.
Furthermore, as Paste points out, the reliance of certain works on elements outside the page has not stopped 11 playwrights from taking home Nobels in other years, although their words are intended to be (and enriched by being) performed.
Tokarczuk and Yevtushenko wrestle with questions with ramifications we acknowledge matter. Is the problem with Dylan that other people's problems—in Central and Eastern Europe or in South America or Africa or Asia—seem weightier than ours, and correspondingly, their literatures carry nobler virtues than America's? This also cannot be the case. We are actively struggling right now with fundamental injustices that truly threaten to tear our nation apart. Just take the Black Lives Matter movement as evidence enough of this.
So let us accept, for the sake of argument, that poetry and music are intertwined essentially, and that artificial, temporary genre restrictions are not enough to disqualify Bob Dylan from winning this year's prize. Let us also accept that Dylan's engagement with crucial questions of American society makes his work as substantive as anyone else's, accepting, too, that our problems in the US are as problematic and as urgent as others'. Is the problem with Dylan his popular appeal?
As Polish poet Czesław Miłosz asked at the close of World War II, "What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?" For literature to do anything at all, it must reach readers and listeners; Bob Dylan is a wonderful example of doing just this. Giving him the Nobel Prize is far from a disgrace, and it does not in any way indicate that the criteria of the committee have been changed.
Literature is doomed if it's expected to steer clear of the popular realm. Denying that Dylan is deserving of a Nobel ignores this fact and denies the serious power of his music.
Jennifer Croft is founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review. Follow her on Twitter.