This post was submitted by Robert Skoro. A musician-turned-anthropologist, Robert works in private industry as a strategist and researcher.
Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, a remarkable gesture to all, whether obvious or controversial. His songs provoked and catalyzed cultural change during a pivotal era in American history, and an American hasn’t won the Nobel Prize in Literature since Toni Morrison in 1993. Yet as readers of this blog have likely noticed, the award was conspicuously met with the question of whether or not Dylan’s most impactful work is in fact a form of literature in the tradition the award maintains.
The award to Dylan is not so much an exemplification of what literature is as much as what literature does. Credited for being prolific and described as a cultural icon, the Swedish Academy’s reference to Homer and Sappho pinpoints the rationale behind their choice. “They wrote poetic texts which were meant to be performed, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan,” they noted. A choice with such functional implications represents a form of boundary work by the Academy–upsetting to some, but particularly appropriate for an award to Dylan.
Particularly during the first half of his career, Dylan’s use of language condensed vast amounts of information and lived experience into song, creating tools of intersubjectivity for people at the margins of society. His words were not his thoughts alone; rather, they helped encapsulate a suite of ideas into a potent tool that could be used against the violent, constrictive ideologies at the foundation of American capitalist power that swelled throughout the 20th century. The award to Dylan celebrates his contribution to culture through the words he chose from that patois, and wrote – a means of further formalizing his personal mythology, as well as America’s.
In mythological terms, Dylan has always been a trickster, upsetting the institutions or categories to which he, and his work, supposedly belong. In the same sense he’s not exactly a writer, he’s also not exactly a musician–none of his greatest pieces of music were likely composed, pen to paper, using pitch recognition or significant amounts of music theory. Dylan has repeatedly come to be something other than what he was thought to be – certainly through his own volition, such as in “going electric” or even becoming a born-again Christian. But as an icon, Dylan also shape-shifts through those he has inspired, taking the form of Steve Jobs’ inspiration, or even more abstractly when portrayed as a black child in Todd Haynes’ biopic.
Choosing someone who is most easily categorized as a performer seems to be the perceived slight towards the American writer, but it is insufficient to attribute Dylan’s victory to celebrity or musical instrumentation – at least until Swedish producer Max Martin is being celebrated (in earnest) for his nonsensical work on Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way!” Rather, the recognition given to Dylan by the Swedish Academy seems intended to maintain the myriad reasons why, how, and for whom literature exists: not for writers, but for people.
Admittedly, I’m biased as a Minnesotan and a musician – both groups tend to stick up for “our people,” especially Dylan and Prince. Here, in downtown Minneapolis, I watched a mural of Dylan erected over several weeks in 2015. The finishing touch was the somewhat perfunctory caption, The Times They Are A Changin’. A passage so brief and well known felt half-hearted in a city that’s quick to point out its role as an incubator for a young Bob Dylan. In light of this week’s award, however, it seems the Swedish Academy may have grounded their rationale not just in the traditions of Homer and Sappho, but in the second verse of Dylan’s song itself:
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’