Yesterday a very brief announcement came out of Stockholm: “The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The Nobel is given for a body of work, which in Dylan’s case spans 54 years and counting. From the response of both detractors and enthusiasts, however, one would think that this particular prize rewards a few songs written over a few turbulent years–or worse, that it is no more than a recognition of a symbol of a particular period in U.S. history. One can debate whether song lyrics are literature, a debate which is not my topic here. But to peg Bob Dylan immovably to a few years known as “the sixties” is an insult to him and a disservice to all who might be transformed by his work.
The detractors say “Will the Baby Boomers just get over themselves already?” and “He wrote one good song.” (I don’t know which song it is, nor whether the Swedish Academy is dominated by Boomers.) The supporters, such as the authors of an approving article in the New York Times, cite the same old few songs: “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963), “The Times They Are A-Changing” (1964), and “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), as if nothing he has produced in the past 50 years is worthy of notice. Even the Swedish Academy used the dread word “icon,” though it went on to note, more relevantly, “His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.”
One can prefer someone’s early work without injustice. Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my favorite writers; I have read almost all of her fiction and a lot of her poetry, and await each new publication with excitement, but it is true that my favorites remain two books she wrote in the 1970s. But she has continued to create marvelous literature, and I would dispute any attempt to label her a 1970s writer. Bob Dylan has written great songs right into the current decade (I listed some of my favorites from 1962 to 1997 here on the occasion of his 70th birthday). As Dylan fan Barack Obama said upon hearing the news, “All these years later, he’s still chasing that sound, still searching for a little bit of truth.”
I’m not denying that he is seen as an icon–who could? He is widely regarded as “the voice of a generation” (another phrase repeated frequently since the announcement), and unfortunately, that means that many people’s opinion of him is shaped by their opinion of that generation. So what if he was the voice of a generation? So was Wilfred Owen, I imagine. And yet I encountered Owen’s poetry 60 years after he died, and it spoke to me and for me. I didn’t have to be a young British man born around the turn of the 20th century, I didn’t have to have been to war, to be transformed by his piercing vision. If we consign Dylan to a basket of sixties memorabilia, we are cheating ourselves of that kind of transformation.And we are dismissing art when we decide out of hand that it has no value beyond its historical moment. Icon though he might have been, Dylan kicked over the pedestal that that term placed him on, and resisted being pigeonholed from the get-go. Hailed by the folk music scene, with its attachment to acoustic instruments, he deliberately embraced electric music in 1965, knowing full well that it would rile the establishment that had made him famous. (One former fan famously yelled “Judas!” at the Albert Hall, to which Dylan responded by telling the band, “Play f—ing loud!” They did.) Called a political prophet, he stepped away from political themes with the album Another Side of Bob Dylan, and he declared with Bringing it All Back Home that his roots included surrealist poetry, rock, and the blues (which the white folkies of the time often did not consider folk music). For that matter, he has always been a blues singer, and guess what? His high school yearbook predicted he would be, not the next Woody Guthrie, but the next Little Richard. Once he had established that poetry belonged on rock albums, he went on to challenge himself and fans by converting to evangelical Christianity and preaching the gospel from three albums and the stage in the late 70s and early 80s. Then he challenged Christian fans by rediscovering his Jewish roots. All along, he has written great lines and immediately crossed them out because they were too much like something Bob Dylan would write. Anyone who goes to his concerts hoping to hear their old favorites reports bitterly that they are unrecognizable; he keeps finding new ways to perform songs he’s played literally hundreds or thousands of times, fearful, it seems, of falling into a rut. He has defied categorization, whether imposed by others or himself, and made and remade himself. In short, he is a truly independent spirit: an artist.
The Nobel pick is generally judged by whether the honored artist’s work can be said to transcend their place and time. By that measure, the Academy chose a good one.