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Yesterday Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  The award has been met with annual scorn and scepticism by many in the English press for decades, though the list of winners of the past 30 or so years includes Mahfouz, Fo, Brodsky, Lessing, Gordimer, Pamuk, Grass, Coetzee, Walcott, Heaney, Morrison, Munro, Pinter, Naipul, Modiano and Transtromer - all major figures in their genres. It is surely the case that Adonis, Roth, Murakami, Atwood, Ashbery, Muldoon, or Le Carre - to name just a few other world-famous writers now living - have an arguable case to be advanced, as well. Their time may yet come.
It cannot, however, be claimed that the Nobel ALWAYS misses the greats. In its odd career, it has managed to reward Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Faulkner, Hemingway, Milosz, Bellow, Neruda, Beckett, Steinbeck, Singer, Sartre, Camus, Pasternak, Gide, Hesse, Churchill, Mistral, Pirandello, Bergson, Shaw, O'Neill, Tagore, and Kipling. Any prize that, in its first century, managed to recognise the greatest Irish, and American poets of the past 100 years is not all bad; that rewarded leading existentialists, and the finest avant-garde playwrights as well. And, if you could only list four major US prose writers since 1900, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Bellow... not so off the mark. Yes, where is Gertrude Stein, Nabokov, Tennessee Williams, Capote, Wallace Stevens, Joyce? But they do manage to reward trends and movements more often than not.
The reaction to the win of Bob Dylan has been huge and divisive.  The major American Language poet, Charles Bernstein, has mockingly asked when Tom Raworth will win a Grammy; whereas Rushdie has welcomed the win. Many of my friends are livid. Other poets and writers I admire, like Tim Dooley, Sir Motion, and Christopher Ricks, are rather pleased. As is this blog.
A lot of the protestation is piffle, and at heart it is a partial and prejudiced prose perspective, predominantly. Novelists tend to think the Nobel is for them - but it is also for historians, speech-writers, essayists, short story writers, philosophers, playwrights, journalists, and poets... the prize is for the best WRITING of words, over a lifetime, in a humanist vein.
Certain genres have not heretofore been seen as Nobel worthy - including comic writing, songwriting, writing for the screen big or small, videogames, blog-posts.... this is clearly changing. By selecting, finally, a songwriter, the Nobel judges have undone a great bias against the oral/performative tradition, and raised fascinating questions about inscription/alphabetic texts versus performed or recorded texts.
Now, if you think song-writing is not a genre of creative writing that employs words and language, then you will of course think it cannot be given a literary prize. But if you think that, then you have not been listening to lyrics over the past century. The words of the great American musicals; the standards by Porter; and then the words of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Curt Cobain - have been more emblematic, effective, memorable and creative, than almost any other word-based genre. If one adds Bowie, Morrissey, and Elvis Costello, Kate Bush and Tori Amos, you have a pretty good list of lyrical wit and brilliance from top singer-songwriters.
There can be no morally legitimate, rationally-based, empirical argument that states that Bob Dylan is not the most-famous, most-beloved, most-respected, most-influential, SONGWRITER in the English-language of the past 50 years. That is simply a true statement, not an evaluation. From his early protest songs - now canonical - to his mid-period cowboy and Christian songs - to his amazing late flowering, exploring mortality and ageing desire - Dylan has composed at least 100 songs that will be sung, loved, studied, enjoyed and admired for as long as humans exist. He is, truly, a contemporary Homer. There is no living writer of words greater - there may be equals - but to state that someone is greater is nonsense. Prove it. It is not provable. Dylan's genius is startling, uncanny, protean, and endless - he is a Shakespeare of verbal virtuosity.
'Hurricane'; 'It Ain't Me Babe'; 'Shelter From The Storm'; 'Visions of Johanna'; 'Gotta Serve Somebody'; 'All Along The Watchtower'; 'Jokerman'; 'Lay, Lady, Lay'; 'Tangled Up In Blue'; 'Everything Is Broken'; 'Mississippi' - just a few instances of moods, styles, each extraordinary. And this is the surface of an oeuvre. Bob Dylan is also a rock singer, a folk singer, a composer, producer, actor, radio host, musician, tambourine man... but foremost he is a serious reader, of myth, poetry, the Bible, - and from an incredible fusion of American grassroots music, with a mind as complex and fertile and giving as Whitman's - he has given the world a WRITTEN catalogue second-to-none.
I can think of no one working in any creative field in the world today more worthy of recognition, and admiration. Let us not cheapen ourselves with complaining about this - let us instead be the generous spirits that tipped our hats as the master passed. And now the door is open to recognising Hip-Hop, and other new forms of writing. The future is wide open.
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