October 15, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsReading

Bob Dylan Won the Nobel Prize [!/?]


Learning of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature this week, I found myself observing, as if from a great distance, the point that the Committee was making (oral and bardic traditions are “literature” too) and the point that more writerly writers made (relax, Dylan fans, I didn’t say more deserving), soon afterwards, how the literature Laureate should, ideally, be a writer—that is, he or she should have created an oeuvre that at least didn’t drastically diminish in worth by being, er, read….

I also found myself thinking a familiar thought—what a pity it is that only one of these is given out a year; so many good writers get passed by—and pondering a familiar question: “What were they really trying to say with this choice?”

Now, as to the first thought, it’s fairly clear that the once-yearly, one-only nature of the Nobel is critical to its prestige. Abundance drives down value; the trophy every participant gets is scrap metal. The only reason the National Book Award’s “longlist” means anything at all to us is because it is so short. The current longlists combined add up 40 books total over 4 categories; in a country that publishes (at a conservative estimate) 600,000 books a year, that’s 0.0066%. Even if you inch up that percentage just a little, the prestige effect drops off. What self-respecting writer among us would feel honored to be on a longlist of 600 books? A “shortlist” of 60?

Part of the significance of Dylan’s Nobel relates to the entire current generation of aging American writers. Knowing the Nobel Committee’s tendencies, laureate countries-of-origin don’t seem to repeat in quick succession, unless you’re an underrated Frenchman. Alice Munro’s Canadian female Nobel has precluded, in all likelihood, a Nobel for the equally deserving (in my opinion) Margaret Atwood. Dylan’s Nobel means that certain hallowed American writers who are at the tail ends of their careers have a much lower probability of winning. Even writers in middle-age ought to beware: If American writers have to wait another 23 years, the Prize may end up going to an elderly Jay-Z or Kanye West for (just imagining the citation here) “the infusion of new forms and vigor into American poetry,” or else to the Broadway Jack-of-all-arts Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has won everything else already, so why not this, too.

One might argue that language that requires music and performance to take life is not living language at all; it is language that from birth requires two forms of life support; but 2016, the Year of the Populists, is not the year for a bookworm like me to make that argument.

So: What is this Nobel really trying to say? Because the literature Nobel is always trying to say something. It’s been well known to disguise as objective praise its commentary on world affairs or the nature of literature. People are free to read into the Prize whatever they wish, and the Committee seems to welcome this. Without chatter and controversy, Prizes are irrelevant. After the 9/11 attacks, the Nobel went to V. S. Naipaul—the author of Among the Believers and Beyond Belief, two books that mapped the nature of radical Islam years before the West went into Full Freakout Mode. This year’s Nobel seems to continue the messaging of last year’s Nobel, which went to Svetlana Alexeivich: The Swedes want to push a “Big Tent” idea of the discipline. They seem to be saying that alternative or “overlooked” forms of word-sequencing constitute capital-L Literature, too. Last year’s Nobelist was a collector of oral histories; this year’s Nobelist was a songwriter.

They do make a good point. Plenty of poetry from the old Greek tragedies to Neruda and Yeats have been sung poems. (Of course, those poems often gain from being read on the page, especially Yeats’s.) The fact that Dylan has turned out a massive amount of irredeemably bad lyrics doesn’t unwrite the fewer good ones; all poets, page poets or songwriters or Shakespeare, have a baseline quality level with dips and spikes. In Shakespeare’s case, the dips (King John) and spikes (King Lear) are more widely divergent than in Dylan’s. As for the poetry’s indispensably performative aspect, if the Prize had been given to a playwright, I doubt anyone would have brought that up as a disqualifier; a singer or rapper composes lyrics for himself to perform, while a playwright writes his lines for others to perform. None of the conceptual arguments against the choice of Dylan have any truth to them; the good-choice-bad-choice discussion, whatever the forms it takes, is at bottom a dispute of taste.

But I digress. Songs-are-literature-too isn’t the only message. It’s just the one emphasized in the citation. I suspect the choice also has to do with the Nobel Committee’s attitude toward American writers in general, which has been well known ever since Horace Engdahl’s notorious (in American literary circles) comment about the parochialism of high-literary Americans. I myself have heard “international” writers (all of whom strove to land positions at American universities) hold forth on how too many American novelists and poets shirk their “duty as Americans” to write about drones and Iraqi orphans and the blood on our collective hands. In this rather parochial view of American writers, American writers write exclusively about divorces (the novelists) and dead deer (the poets). As it turns out, well before Engdahl’s generalization—over a decade before, in fact—this perspective seems to have been a commonplace among the Swedish kingmakers. Consider this bit of literary gossip, shared by Robert Polito on the pen.org website:

I remember that in the 1990s Czesław Miłosz (Nobel Prize, 1980) once told me that based on his conversations with members of the Swedish Academy Dylan was the only American writer in serious Nobel Prize contention, despite the annual rumors around Roth, Oates, etc.

I will now somewhat arbitrarily inflate the importance of these two data points into a corollary theory of Dylan’s Nobel: Which is that it is at once an expression of admiration for Bob Dylan (obviously) and (obliquely) a gesture of contempt toward the supposed American “greats,” ages sixty and up, in fiction and poetry. This choice is a way of repudiating the American high-literary establishment—which, outside America, is perceived to be self-centered in its concerns, uninterested in translated literature, and artificially inflated in importance by the dynamics of publishing and marketing and American cultural hegemony generally. Think about American writers from that perspective: Europeans see their bookstores full of translations of he-said-she-said Franzen (and he-shot-she-shot James Paterson), but they know well that translations of Modiano and LeClezio can’t find even an academic press over here. The choice of Dylan, besides all its other thinkpiece-triggering elements, is a way of saying, While you were busy overrating and fawning over your little favorites, the really important Literature in your country was getting written by this man, who is already more famous than all of your favorites combined. …Okay, maybe not in so many words. But such an implicit dig, I propose, would be in keeping with their past attitude toward American literati; and I really doubt that any selection of an American would not be informed by their rather openly expressed distaste for the Parochial Americans.

Prizes like these tell you more about who’s in power than they do about merit, anyway. I don’t know the average age of the Committee, but I suspect it’s mostly people “of a certain age” who grew up listening to Dylan and revere him in a way far fewer people my age revere him. Surprise surprise, aging hippies hold power in cultural and academic circles! But before you gnash your teeth, you youngish all-too-writerly writers, consider: One October, twenty-three years from now, twentysomethings will wonder why you keep whining how Kendrick Lamar got robbed.

By this logic, incidentally, Karl Ove Knausgaard may find it harder to win the Nobel because of his runaway success among the American literati; the Committee may be more inclined to give it to a rival, underrated Scandinavian writer you’ve never heard of. Or maybe they’ll give it to him next year, who knows.

Who does know, really? We can read into each year’s choice anything we want. I would like nothing more than to be totally wrong and see 2017’s Nobel going to another American, this one more conventionally writerly, maybe one of the perpetual Ladbrokes Top 5. That would really be a wonderful way for the Swedes to baffle expectations. Though I doubt they are going to go that route, don’t you?

In the meantime, instead of reading into the choice, I should probably be reading the chosen one himself.

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

Great poetry. Or so I hear.