Well, the times they are a-changin’.
This month, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan, musician and prolific folk singer and songwriter of the last 50 years. This monumental event marked the first time a singer-songwriter won the prize, and the first time for an American to win in more than 20 years. The prize was awarded to him “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American-song tradition,” as released by the nominating committee. Americans far and wide stood in awe of the song standing next to the sonnet.
The decision was quite the surprise to many in the music arena, as well as those interested in literature. While Dylan has been considered for this prize for many years, the expectation was that an author of the modern novel would win, similar to the past exemplars of this category. Instead, the award found itself transcending preceding definitions, and was awarded to one of the most influential American musicians of all time.
Bob Dylan was a man who used his music as a device, writing countless ballads of American culture, anti-war sentiment and civil rights. Almost everyone can identify one of his iconic lines, whether they know its origin or not. For the first musician to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Bob Dylan is an great selection for more than just his profession.
More importantly, is that through the selection of Bob Dylan, the definition of literature has evolved. Merriam-Webster contains many definitions of literature, the most robust of them being: writings in prose or verse; especially: writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest. In other words, literature is great writing, writing that has become well-recognized and remembered for its uniqueness and ability to express complexity. In my opinion, great music can often be placed alongside great literature for its mastery of language. Of course, not all of the finest musical pieces can be literature; many pieces lack any words at all. But in the case of Bob Dylan, the melodies and sounds of his music only complemented what was often poetic articulation:
“Yes to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free/ silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands/ with all memory and fate, driven deep beneath the waves/ let me forget about today until tomorrow”
““ Bob Dylan
It is inspiring to think of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize and taking a seat next to those whom preceded him. Dylan now finds himself among the ranks of literary greats, such as the novelists Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, the playwrights Samuel Beckett and Eugene O’Neill and the poets W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot. Although many literary geniuses were snubbed by the Nobel Prize such as Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald, their loss does not diminish Dylan’s achievement. However, if the Nobel Committee is willing to accept that music has a strong foundation in literature, we must ask: how far will it extend?
Regardless of who wins the Nobel Prize in Literature in the upcoming years, authors or musicians, the committee has opened up an important progressive discussion on literature. It will be defined and redefined endlessly, and the upcoming winners will impact the dynamic or stagnant ideologies of literature. Will we see more modern musicians win the Nobel Prize in Literature? Or will this prove to be a singular event that results in furthering boundaries between music and literature? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.