Literature Prizes and Genre

The Nobel Committee’s awarding of the Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan has not, of course, gone unnoticed in the literary community. More than one novelist has taken to social media to say they feel hard-done-by. And to be fair, this is the first award to an American since Toni Morrison’s win in 1993. But a lot of comments read like sour grapes. Gary Shteyngart, for instance, said that he gets it, that “reading books is hard.” Since he is in no position to win a Nobel anytime soon, we can take his statement as showing that he feels aggrieved on behalf of his craft, which is fair enough.  Last year it was Belarussian oral history compiler Svetlana Alexievich and now this, two minutes and three chords.

The Committee, meanwhile, seemed a little defensive, citing Homer and Sappho, which is reaching back rather far. We could cite instead an actual Nobel Laureate, William Butler Yeats, noting that his award did not say, “for everything that is actual poetry but not for ‘Down by the Salley Gardens,’ and a handful of other songs.”

Let’s try thinking about this another way. Rather than defining literature as comprising two or three privileged genres, maybe we can think of it as, irrespective of genre, those endeavors that feed into the One Big Story, the story what it means to be human. That shift can be jarring, I know, when we consider that it would include not only Homer and Shakespeare but also Mickey Spillane, not only novels and poems and plays but also memoir, New Journalism, cinema, and popular song. But bear in mind that prose fiction’s membership in the club is quite recent. For its first couple of centuries, the novel was regarded as a commodity rather than an art form. Not until Henry James and a couple of others began theorizing about the novel in the late nineteenth century did the practice of fiction begin to be seen as a serious literary art. I realize not everyone is willing to make that leap with me. But hold it in mind as the Swedish Academy’s bombshell ripples out into the culture.

Disregarding matters of genre, name another writer whose influence is as profound, whose reach is as global as Dylan’s. When speaking of songwriters in other countries, the phrase is almost always, Mali’s Dylan, Uruguay’s Dylan, Estonia’s Dylan. I mean, who else gets this treatment? Besides Shakespeare, that is. Hardly anyone.

Now, I didn’t always have this view of the literary world. I recall distinctly in high school (that I can recall anything distinctly from so long ago is miraculous, but never mind) that when we were to study poetry in English class, certain other students would clamor for popular songsters, usually the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and of course Dylan. Oh, come on, I thought, let’s study real poets, if we’re studying any of them. So what happened? In the words of someone, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”