Which way does Nobel wind blow?
The world got a bit of a surprise when headlines popped, many with implicit question marks, that Bob Dylan — he who needs virtually no introduction — won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The first American to win the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993, he is also the only American to win the prize having made his literary reputation only upon people examining his lyrics.
A few, such as writer and critic Lisa Levy at LitHub, are looking at the evolution of the artist, doing what Salman Rushdie has already noted in linking ancient figures like Orpheus to the “bardic tradition.”
Personally, I am mixed on the matter, but my waffling creates a question: How will the Nobel committee choose to define literary greatness? Dylan changed an idiom, but did so in a format previously not recognized by the Nobel.
No one who has won the prize has made his or her primary reputation as a musician. But if changing an idiom in a lyric art form counts, why not Robert Johnson?
I can imagine, based on Dylan’s nod, an argument for Springsteen, though he can clearly be seen as derivative of Dylan, as could Neil Young, considered by many grunge and punk artists as a grandfatherly figure with his protean works.
Joni Mitchell, Carol King, Kraftwerk, Malcolm McClaren. We could do this all day.
If folk music is part of literary tradition (and one could argue that to death), why not Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s own antecedent?
If folk music is street music before it gets absorbed into pop, then why not ur-hip hop artists the Sugarhill Gang?
The Nobel process is quite secretive, so it is theoretically possible these names have already been submitted.
In their move anointing Dylan with the prize, the Nobel has recognized the porous nature of genres in artistic expression.
I think we can expect more surprises from the Nobel against what is a staid and traditional view of what merits the term “literature.”
If a graphic novelist were to win in a few years (don’t count out Art Speigelman), is it so unrealistic to expect a game designer to win at some point?
It’s not hard to find people celebrating the narrative potential of games and their work in four dimensions as being a new and limitless medium on storytelling.
Technology may stretch our sense of literature, but the accolades for Dylan are connecting him to verbal artistry including the Beats, the Modernists, as well as a lineage of folk musicians.
The verbal artistry — the words that craft narrative and image, metaphor and allusion — are the basis for other forms of storytelling that aspires to literary quality.
The Nobel committee, in considering its nominees for literature and what is possible, show in this selection that they recognize how diffuse are the boundaries of influence and acts of imitation.
The question may be less why Dylan and more why has it taken the committee so long to catch up to genre blur and literary qualities that exist beyond the institutionalized formats of fiction (specifically novels and short stories) and poetry?
Personally, and this really doesn’t matter, I am ambivalent about Dylan’s selection.
He certainly has his moments, and they are well understood by those who remember the mid-20th century’s alleged monocultural moment: “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blood on the Tracks,” “Blonde on Blonde.”
But I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t have an opinion on: Is Dylan one of the great poets?
It inspires a debate on what “great” and “poetry” mean, and if there is time, a discussion on the blurry lines between genres and merit of works that challenge them.
In their action to recognize Dylan, the Nobel committee has drawn that conversation to the forefront, for a person whose work has done much for decades to make us think.
Welsch is vice president for advancement and marketing at Juniata College.