Bob Dylan should not have won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature.
Hear me out. As one of the best songwriters this country has ever produced, Dylan, Orpheus of the Heartland, has been a perennial long-shot candidate for the Nobel, or at least one favored by the bettors who patronize Ladbrokes. Until Thursday morning, a Dylan win was a convenient fantasy. Nobody thought it would actually happen; overnight, though, he became the first American to win literature’s biggest prize since Toni Morrison in 1993. This is not a good thing.
I say this not to diminish Dylan’s body of work: His talents are extraordinary, and he deservedly occupies a place of international renown. Bob Dylan is a legend. But he does not deserve a literary prize for his music. This is because songwriting and poetry are entirely different arts, though they share passing similarities — meter, rhythm, rhyme, and the like. In terms of verse, most of Dylan’s work is terrible. But don’t take it from me; here’s Ellen Willis, perhaps the best music critic of her generation, in a 1967 piece on reading Dylan’s songs as poetry:
Dylan has a lavish verbal imagination and a brilliant sense of irony, and many of his images — especially in his last album, “Blonde on Blonde” — are memorable. But poetry also requires economy, coherence, and discrimination, and Dylan has perpetrated prolix verses, horrendous grammar, tangled phrases, silly metaphors, embarrassing clichés, muddled thought; at times he seems to believe one good image deserves five others, and he relies too much on rhyme. […] His skill at creating character has made good lyrics out of terrible poetry, as in the pre-rock “Ballad in Plain D,” whose portraits of the singer, his girl, and her family redeem lines like: “With unseen consciousness I possessed in my grip/ a magnificent mantelpiece though its heart being chipped.”
Rock’s other critic laureate, Robert Christgau, had much the same to say. Writing about Dylan’s 1971 book “Tarantula” — which he eventually deems not worth reading — Christgau said:
To assert that Dylan doesn’t belong in the history of literature is not to dismiss him from the history of artistic communication or of language. Quite the contrary. A songwriter does not use language as a poet or a novelist does, because he chooses his words to fit into some larger, more sensual effect; an artist who elects to work in a mass medium communicates in a different way from one who doesn’t and must be judged according to his own means, purposes, and referents.
In this case, the medium matters just as much as the message — especially when that message is fuzzed-out and vague, concealed by voice and guitar and “by the nebulousness that passes for depth among so many lovers of rock poetry.” That’s not to say Dylan’s body of work or his influence shouldn’t be critically considered; the music is deserving of exegesis. (And he is the godfather of every subway or bathroom-stall poet.) But we should consider it as music, as words and lyrics, and not as any kind of literature.
The problem with thinking about Dylan as a literary mind — which, again, is not to say that his every song doesn’t work as poetry — is that it both discounts the incredibly hard work of writing meaningful songs and reduces poetry to its barest components. On the difficulty of crafting songs, Dylan told The New Yorker: “A song has to have some kind of form to fit into the music. You can bend the words and the metre, but it still has to fit somehow.” Which goes along with another Christgau piece from 1967: “Poems are read or said,” he wrote. “Songs are sung.” Dylan’s genius is to unite the music with the words. Willis called him a visionary, and indeed he’s been at times prophetic, but what he does is not literary. And that’s OK.
It isn’t Dylan’s fault he was chosen by the Nobel Committee. Prizes are rarely awarded entirely on merit, and there’s usually more than one equally deserving candidate in any given year, especially with the larger ones. And then there are the feuds to consider: “The judges are supposed to be notables, not ninnies; consequently they are busy people, a long time in the rackets, with grudges and buddies and old scores and i.o.u.’s and other obligations like everybody else,” William Gass wrote in The New York Times in 1985. More recently, the novelist Edward St. Aubyn wrote a satire, “Lost For Words,” of the literary prize–judging process — and managed to win a Wodehouse for his efforts.
Dylan’s win won’t tarnish the Nobel in the eyes of the world; the $900,000 prize winnings and the resulting international visibility ensures that it will always be literature’s most coveted award. But maybe this will help writers care less about awards in general, and focus more on their arbitrariness. “I just can’t make it with any organization,” Dylan told The New Yorker in 1964. “I fell into a trap once — last December — when I agreed to accept the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee,” he continued. Dylan went on:
I began to drink. I looked down from the platform and saw a bunch of people who had nothing to do with my kind of politics. I looked down and I got scared. They were supposed to be on my side, but I didn’t feel any connection with them. Here were these people who’d been all involved with the Left in the thirties, and now they were supporting civil-rights drives. That’s groovy, but they also had minks and jewels, and it was like they were giving the money out of guilt. I got up to leave, and they followed me and caught me. They told me I had to accept the award.