Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Oct. 13, marking the first time a musician has received the accolade. Dylan joined a distinct group of notable authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Neruda and Toni Morrison—the last American to win the prize in 1993. However, Dylan’s accomplishment has been met with some scrutiny. Many are left wondering whether Dylan’s legacy in the music realm is substantial enough to transpose his presence into literature. Best-selling author Jodi Picoult voiced the public’s growing disagreement with the Swedish Academy’s decision by tweeting, “I’m happy for Bob Dylan. #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?” Many other writers, such as Stephen King and Salman Rushdie, have been quick to support Dylan, reestablishing the idea that the musician’s lyrics have made him deserving of the award.
The Swedish Academy, the organization that bestows Nobel prizes, backed its decision by citing that he was awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Dylan was transformed into a U.S. music staple after his humble beginning in the early 1960s, when he sang songs of protest in Greenwich Village cafes and lounges. At the time, the United States was in an uneasy state; the counter-culture movement was gaining momentum and the political youth was defying generations of baby-boomer values.
However, Dylan’s most popular protest songs, “Chimes of Freedom” and The Times They Are a-Changin,’” targeted the country’s global concerns, specifically the anti-communist agenda. Dylan’s album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in 1963, had a central theme against the country’s war initiative. As a result, Dylan’s image was bolstered by the time and his passion to create a valuable message. Since his prime years, Dylan has recorded several albums and is currently touring the United States, utilizing the same craftsmanship and finesse to compose his lyrical messages.
Upon speculation, it seems that Dylan has only dabbled in literature, his song lyrics being the only thing to show for his Nobel Prize. But he has inconspicuously written allusions and poetic references into his work. His songs are filled with strong metaphors and deliberate literary structure. Nothing is done accidentally. Outside of his music, Dylan published Tarantula, a collection of consciousness written in prose and poetry. Dylan’s successive work, Chronicles: Volume One, is a memoir that was published in 2004. Each piece of work has received literary praise from critics as well as fans.
Furthermore, Dylan’s work has served as the backbone for scholarly study. The Oxford Book of American Poetry used Dylan’s song “Desolation Row,” an 11-minute tirade of characters both fictional and real, that composes a whirlwind of a story in its 2006 collection of poetry. In 2009, the Cambridge University Press published The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan in order to analyze the artist’s literary and stylistic methods. This all culminates into the idea that the academy has broken a barrier by electing Dylan for the prize. Literary aficionados claim that Dylan’s work is beneath the fine art category that encompasses literature. For years, literary and musical experts have observed the shrinking gap between high art such as paintings, sculptures and literature, and commercial art like music, architecture and cinema.
It appears that the divide between art forms stems from how accessible they are to the public. The more reserved the art is to the upper classes of society, the more highly regarded the art becomes. Because Dylan appealed to the mass public, he was automatically shuffled into the pool of low artistry. With Dylan winning the award, it seems that the long-time gap has officially been closed. However, it would be an overstatement to claim that the academy is acting as a progenitor in defying the status-quo with Dylan’s nomination.
Winston Churchill was awarded the prize in 1953; the academy praised his political speeches as substantial additions to oral literature. More recently, Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarussian journalist, won the prize in 2015 for depicting essential narratives based on oral history. Both Churchill and Alexievich stirred the literary community, similar to what Dylan accomplished over the last week. The academy has remained firm in their decision to award another non-fiction writer. Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, praised Dylan in her announcement of the award, comparing him to famous Greek poets Homer and Sappho.
Dylan will receive an 18-karat gold medal and a monetary prize worth roughly $925,000. It is not confirmed whether Dylan will appear in Stockholm on Dec. 10 to receive the prize in person.