You Can’t Write Literature

In his Nobel acceptance speech (which he did not deliver in person), Bob Dylan compared himself to Shakespeare. This was not an attempt at self-aggrandizement. Rather, Dylan was pointing out that neither of them set out to write Literature. Literature happened while they were thinking about other things:

When [Shakespeare] was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” (Source)

Literature, I think, is something that exists because we all think it does. A work only becomes literature by acclaim because it captures something about the human experience in a unique and arresting manner. After all, there’s a reason why no one can agree on what belongs in the canon: we all value different subjects and styles.


Robert James Gordon

There’s a long-standing stereotype about American writers on a quest to write “the great American novel.” I imagine that if a writer actually set out write Literature, they would either give themselves a terminal case of writers’ block or end up with a pastiche of all the great works…and it would be unreadable. It would have no soul.

While I still have a beef with the Nobel Literature Prize committee, I completely recognize how difficult it is to select one writer (of whatever genre, even song apparently) from the entire world to recognize. They are a relatively small group of humans trying to affix the Literature label to a living writer’s work. They don’t have a hundred years of hindsight to support their decision.


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