Throughout the majority of the 1960s, Bob Dylan, a poetic folk-rock singer and songwriter, penned songs about the social and political unrest of the United States.
His work, as philosophical and thought-provoking as it was fun to sing along to, gradually expanded from his first album in 1962 to a career spanning over 50 years and a catalogue of over 500 original songs. To top off numerous Grammy Awards and a place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Oct. 13, becoming the first ever songwriter to receive the award.
Dylan was always honest and straightforward about the struggles facing the everyday person and the effect that his achievement had on the people who listen to his music shows that his songs do what literature is supposed to: provoke some sort of response from those who partake in it. However, the recognition raised some eyebrows among popular publications, with The New York Times and Slate Magazine, a magazine of news, politics, technology and culture, running articles with identical headlines: “Why Bob Dylan Shouldn’t Have Gotten A Nobel Prize.” While a songwriter winning such an award is certainly unconventional, the point of literature isn’t about what form it comes in or what boxes get checked; it’s much more about the emotional response that it elicits from those who indulge in it.
We as a society subscribe to the rigid idea of the categories of things, but literature is all about the expression of one’s feelings or of widespread ideas. Multiple art forms do this, but literature was always closely boxed in as adhering to traditional, published writings that have an author and solely produce ideas in this way. That is why the recent untraditional awarding of the Nobel Prize is ruffling so many feathers — that and the fact that Dylan is seemingly refusing to acknowledge that he won the award. Dylan doesn’t fit into the standard equation of a traditional writer, even though the poetry of Dylan’s music is renowned and unique for the way in which he portrays his ideas and the way in which people have responded to such ideas.
Why is Dylan any different from a playwright like Harold Pinter or an achingly emotional poet like Pablo Neruda? Why is he dissimilar from an internationally famous novelist like Ernest Hemingway or Gabriel García Márquez, or one whose writings foray out of traditional tellings and into history like Günter Grass, all of whom are former Nobel Prize in Literature winners? Yes, he may be the first songwriter ever to win the award, but if anything, the decision was the Swedish Academy choosing to recognize the dynamic nature that the award can have. Dylan for years reflected the frustrations of those struggling with many forms of inequality and lack of representation, which continues to resonate with countless people.
Language and literature should be fluid and allow for change; that’s how new art forms are created — by being given the freedom to change. That’s not to say that a songwriter should win the Nobel Prize in Literature every year because then it would be a songwriting award and wouldn’t stand for greatness in literature. Rather, the Nobel Prize in Literature should be an award to celebrate the diversity of literature. This year, it’s Dylan for the poetry of his song lyrics that reflect ideals of American worker from the 1960s, and next year, it should be a different expression of writing, maybe focusing on, as The New York Times suggested, “a writer from the developing world, which remains woefully underrepresented among Nobel laureates” or “a writer who has built an audience primarily online, like Warsan Shire, who became the first Young Poet Laureate of London in 2014.”
The Nobel Foundation made this exact point themselves; they gave the award to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” They’re celebrating his triumphs for having made great strides in literature within a whole other category: music. Moreover, they recognize that literature takes different forms and that the important part of it is not what form it comes in, but how it resonates with people who consume it. Overall, the Swedish Academy is trying to make the system more inclusive because language and literature do not have to be rigid, and literature doesn’t always equate to what’s in a book. Dylan has written some profound poetry in the form of song lyrics for over 50 years and his brand of literature should be celebrated.