I listened to Bob Dylan’s Nobel acceptance speech and learned, among other things, that I had forgotten a good bit about Moby Dick. Or that my Melville ain’t like Bob’s. It was a pure Dylan performance–rambling, specific, squirrelly, unexpected. The experience prompted me to think again about his receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. This award, also unexpected, occasioned much consternation last October, of course, because it was a first. The thrust of much of the criticism went something like this,:”How can you compare his lyrics to [fill in blank with poet you consider least like Dylan],” or “Songs aren’t a recognized genre of literature,” or least charitably, “Those Scandinavians are nuts.” This last one I won’t touch, lacking the expertise (or sanity) to render a judgment.
As for the genre issues, a couple of thoughts. First, more novelists have won Nobel Prizes than writers in any other genre. At one time, however, the novel was regarded as a debased form, a bastard child of narrative poetry aimed at the middle class, and particularly (horrors) middle-class women. That went on for a couple of centuries or so, until Henry James and one or two French novelists in the late nineteenth century began writing seriously about prose fiction as an art form, and now we take it as an article of faith that prose fiction has always been a cornerstone genre in the house of literature. As to that first question, the award was never the Nobel Prize in Poetry, and that particular response struck me as deliberately obtuse. The desire to denigrate songs for not being poems is as wrong-headed as the one to disparage films for not being novels–or novels for not being Homeric epics. Every genre is up to something different from all others. But if we are going to undertake a comparison, let’s make it to T. S. Eliot, who may be the only artist to be as transformational in his chosen field as Dylan has been in his. And let’s also recall that there have been a fair number worse choices by the Nobel Committee (think, John Galsworthy) than their 2016 selection.