On newness and the Nobel: Bob Dylan and the case for literary representation

Opinion by Maddie Kim
Oct. 20, 2016, 12:19 a.m.

There’s something universal in attaching music to memory, in seeing oneself in a favorite song. Perhaps this associative tendency explains our collective cultural admiration for Bob Dylan. When Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, many praised the Nobel committee’s decision to honor a musician so influential and recalled their own moments of resonance with his music. A Boston Globe article lauded him as “better than literature;” an entire slew of Harvard professors shared their admiration for Dylan’s expression of issues of poverty, racism, and injustice.

Yet, for every article celebrating the honor, there is another article criticizing the committee’s choice to award one of the few major literary prizes to a musician. Some argue that the number and impact of awards for musicians far outnumber those for writers; others have performed close analyses of Dylan’s lyrics to demonstrate visible differences in nuance between song lyrics and poetry.

In truth, this debate tires me as much as it stirs me, because it evokes questions about the definitions of art and literature that are as timeless as they are unanswerable. I’m hesitant to stake my claim in the argument over whether Dylan’s work can be considered literature because I’m not sure who has the authority to draw definitive lines, to create locked enclosures within which literature must be held.

However, moving beyond the definitions-of-art debate, I think the implications behind awarding Dylan the Nobel in Literature reflect a contemporary danger for writers. Many of Dylan’s accolades highlight his accessibility, the story behind the song that each of us holds close. While there is something remarkable about an artist as widely-loved as Dylan, in commending such a widely recognized artist, the opportunity to increase accessibility in a field without the kind of popular culture recognition that music and Dylan already possess was lost.

Additionally, Dylan’s music is inseparable from his lyrics; even if he was honored for literature, it is with the understanding that melody enlivens his words. However cruel the close readings of his lyrics may appear, they illustrate the stark discrepancy between the craft of poetry and song lyrics, the additional complexities of caesura and enjambment and the musicality of individual words themselves. In one such reading, Slate writer Stephen Metcalf points out that Dylan’s lyrics on their own, analyzed like poetry, are inert without their music. “You don’t go to the hardware store for oranges, as they say, and if you want poetry, you don’t go to Bob Dylan,” he writes.

When poet and songwriter Ada Limón came to speak to my Poetry and Poetics class last week, she described songwriting and poetry writing as two distinct processes — poetry, without the benefit of instruments or melody, must compensate for this lack of sonic dimension by creating musicality through language itself. I’m writing about this nearly-exhausted Dylan debate because I believe her, because I believe that poetry and lyricism are two very different things. I believe that poetry (and fiction and nonfiction) is more complex and nuanced a craft than lyric writing because it has to be. Because there isn’t a soundtrack that can be heard except for the linguistic one that writers must create.

I think there are countless writers of incredible skill and resonance, writers whose work also explores issues of racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and poverty, writers whose perspectives could have been brought to public attention. But instead we celebrated someone who has already been recognized as a musician, someone whose voice we’ve all already heard before. In seeking a radicality by awarding a literary prize to a musician, the Nobel committee’s decision seems to me distinctly unradical, un-new.

I understand why many are ecstatic about Dylan’s latest recognition, why the notion of expanding standard definitions of art is an admirable one. However, as a female writer of color, I guess I’m a little disappointed by the fact that I don’t even write songs. I think I was hoping for something more: more rooted in craft, more diverse, more unheard of. Less white. With Dylan winning the prize, a question of many writers and readers again arises, as it always does: Where else can we turn to see ourselves?

Contact Maddie Kim at mkim16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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