In 1997, Eric Zorn, a columnist in the Chicago Tribune, advocated for Bob Dylan to be awarded the Nobel Prize. “And though it's likely that snobbery will forever doom the chances of a folk-rock musician to join the roster of past winners that includes such literary giants as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison,” Zorn wrote, “the truth is that, for multi-faceted talent with language and sustained international impact, few if any living writers are Dylan's equal.”
A century earlier, in 1896, when the literature prize’s founding charter was read out from Alfred Nobel’s will, it recommended the award be conferred on the “person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”
Charter from another age
Alfred Nobel’s directive was formed in a time when the nineteenth century forms of the novel and the short story, along with the classical mediums of poetry and drama, constituted the zenith of literary expression. Nobel’s charter could not have imagined how these forms would remain significant and robust, but steadily become inadequate in representing the whole of lived experience in the twentieth century, the most violent in human history.
As the Nobel approached its centenary, around the time of Zorn’s plea to award Dylan the literature prize, it was clear that novels, poems, short stories and plays were not the sole expressions of literary prestige and value, but part of a wider constellation which included nonfiction reportage, narrative history and biography, academic treatises such as Edward Said’s Orientalism and — as acknowledged by Dylan’s award — the great tradition of songwriting, coming of age in the radical tumult of the 1960s.
But, as recently as two years ago, there lingered the sense that the Nobel remained, to its detriment, too faithful to its founding charter and strangely reluctant to recognise the varied art forms that so powerfully enhanced our understanding of the modern age. For every inspired choice, such as J.M. Coetzee or Mo Yan, there was a J.M.G. Le Clézio and a Patrick Modiano, which was evidence of a wearing retreat into a provincial, post-war European vision, one curiously at odds with the epoch being lived by the vast majority of the world’s citizens, of technological innovation, ever-imaginative forms of state terror and modern, industrial forms of violence and devastation.
It seemed the Nobel committee was reluctant to recognise that Europe was no longer the centre of economic and intellectual ferment, that countries such as India and China would shape the destiny of our still-nascent century far more than the Old Continent. Yet in an era of Europe’s rapidly declining significance to the world at large, 15 of the past 20 Laureates (before Dylan) were European. In 2008, in a statement that might have been true five decades previously, Horace Engdahl, the then-permanent secretary of the Nobel committee, said, “Europe is still the centre of the literary world.”
However, awarding the prize to Dylan, and last year to the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, allow us to tentatively suggest that the Nobel’s horizons, at last, may be becoming more expansive and modern.
The prize to Alexievich, a worthy successor to the great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, gave a clue to the Nobel committee’s changing priorities. In a piece in the New Yorker, ‘Nonfiction Wins a Nobel,’ the writer Philip Gourevitch quoted from one of Alexievich’s essays in which she declared that “art has failed to understand many things about people.” Alexievich argued that, in our present age, “when man and the world have become so multifaceted and diversified,” journalistic documentation remained the best way of representing reality, while “art as such often proves impotent.”
Capturing our age
In his piece, Gourevitch narrated another fascinating exchange at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York where Alexievich stated: “I’d like to remember the great Chekhov, and his play ‘The Three Sisters.’ The main character in that play says over and over, ‘Now life is terrible, we live in squalor, but in a hundred years, a hundred years, how beautiful, how fine everything will be.’ And what has happened a hundred years later? We have Chernobyl; we have the World Trade Towers collapsing. It’s a new age in history. What we have experienced now not only goes beyond our knowledge but also exceeds our ability to imagine.”
Alexievich’s prize was, in a sense, the Nobel committee’s acknowledgement of a long-overdue corrective. Dylan’s award furthers that process, as if the Nobel committee was hastily making amends for the decidedly narrow prism with which it viewed the artistic and cultural ferment of the past half-century. In the space of two years, the Nobel seems to have shed decades of conservatism, and twice redefined what it considers — and what we must consider — ‘literature’.
It is also a powerful reinforcement of the oral tradition, the primary method of literary dissemination through the centuries, before the onslaught of print capitalism in the West began relegating it to the margins from the eighteenth century onwards. Salman Rushdie, delighted by Dylan’s prize, told theGuardian: “The frontiers of literature keep widening and it’s exciting that the Nobel prize recognises that.” What a blow for diversity of literary forms that, to access the latest Laureate’s work, we had to go to iTunes instead of Amazon.
Dylan’s award may be something we may never see repeated, for he is a truly singular figure: a prophetic bard whose songs contained the force of immediacy, but were simultaneously universal and timeless. Some of the best music critics of our time, such as Alex Ross and David Hajdu, have written of Dylan’s dexterity and towering influence across genres, which include blues, folk and rock-and-roll. The Nobel committee said they were giving the prize to Dylan as “a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards.” Some have even interpreted it as a lofty rebuke to the sleazy, dismaying political climate in the age of Trump.
Of equal relevance to the world of letters at large may be Dylan’s stubborn refusal to become a pamphleteer and an easy vehicle for the partisan political passions of his age. A seer born of the counterculture of the 1950s and ’60s, Dylan yet remained sceptical of the evangelist temper of anti-establishment politics and the constricting nature of political categories, animated by an Orwellian distrust of Utopias and wary of the artistic perils of political allegiance.
‘A song and dance man’
In his farsighted suspicion of all “isms” that ravaged the twentieth century, and in his demurral to be a spokesman for anything at all, Dylan’s life has been a compelling case for an inalienable devotion to the integrity and autonomy of the artist. Perhaps there has been no greater, and simpler, expression of artistic independence than Dylan’s declaration that “I am just a song and dance man.”
No composer or songwriter is likely to win the prize again for a long while, but Dylan’s prize is significant for it heralds the Literature Nobel’s belated transition into the modern age. Zorn, the columnist in the Chicago Tribune, triumphantly noted that nineteen years too late, Dylan had finally got what he deserved. There are more correctives for the prize to make, such as overcoming the still dominant spell of Eurocentrism. But the literature prize, conceived in the nineteenth century, finally seems to be embracing the twenty-first.