Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
—Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue“
I had three conversations today that started with someone asking, “Bob Dylan?” Since I work in a library and today the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, we all knew what the questioner meant. Usually when the Nobel Prize for Literature is announced, I have to go the author’s Wikipedia page to learn who the hell they are before I start buying all the books we don’t have by that previously unknown author. This year, everyone knew the winner’s work.
What many of us didn’t know, was why Dylan won the prize. I’ve been seeing articles predicting the winner for about a week now. The lists have included perennial favorites like Philip Roth, Adunis, and Haruki Murakami. (My personal recommendation is for Margaret Atwood or Ursula Le Guin to get the prize, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in the top 10.) Each announcement is accompanied by a brief explanation about why they are unique, valuable, and deserving of global recognition for their art. There are, as far as the rest of us not on the nominating committee know, no set criteria for the award as long as the author put words to a page. This is the first time the award has gone to someone who put music to the words on the page.
My usual complaint about the Nobel for Literature is that, more often not, an obscure European who is read by a vanishingly small audience wins the prize. The award has always gone to someone very gifted, but I’ve always thought that a global award should take into account all of the voices of the world. My complaint is different this year. I know Bob Dylan’s work and am a big fan. But how is he relevant now? There are so many writers who’ve been published in recent decades who write about the events and movements that are shaping us now. Dylan spoke for (and still does, I suppose) for another generation.
Perhaps my complaint about Dylan is the same as my usual complaint after all. He wrote and sang for a specific time, place, and audience that doesn’t exist anymore. His audience is bigger than the one for Patrick Modiano, Herta Müller, or Tomas Tranströmer—so I guess Dylan is a more deserving winner than the obscure Europeans by my criteria. Still, I feel that other authors deserve the win more. Atwood and Le Guin write for woman, for humanity, for our possible futures. Murakami writes for a disconnected but also hyperconnected generation. Adunis writes about the turmoil of the Islamic world. All four are writing about the way we are now (and have been for a few decades). But hell, if Dylan can win, maybe there’s hope for genre writers yet.
What I do like about the Nobel Prize for Literature is the way it sends the bookish internet into a tizzy. “Who won?!? Who???” Then everyone brings out their list of who should have won and why (see above), yells at each other on twitter for a few days, then settles down. Most of the time, the bookish internet is quietly talking about new books, small scandals, and our own pet interests in literature. The squabbling about the Nobel for Literature is something that unites us all—at least for a bit.