Almost every year since its inception in 1901, the Nobel Committee has handpicked the figures that their voters believe represent the superlative in chemistry, literature, peace, physics and physiology. These laureates are then added to the annals of history, to be forever remembered as one of that period’s best and brightest, master of their respective trades. Indeed, past winners include many figures whose names are commonly found in history books across disciplines and across the world: Marie Curie, Jimmy Carter, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Martin Luther King. However, this myriad of names was forever altered when, last week, the first prize ever given to a sing-songwriter was awarded to Bob Dylan in the Literature category for “having created new poetic expressions within the American song tradition.”
This unprecedented decoration in a field usually reserved for novelists, poets, and the occasional philosopher predictably sparked immediate debate and controversy. Members of the literary and editorial community spoke out emphatically both for and against the nomination, arguing heatedly over the merits and downsides of choosing a musician to represent a community of writers. While some argue that Dylan embodies the belief and emotion of an entire American generation, others claim that the committee’s choice is both unfair and disrespectful towards those who rightly deserved the award. The public contention over Dylan’s nomination will substantially affect the trajectory of the award, as well as the legacy of the recipient himself. The choice of Dylan to represent the literary community’s finest both reinforces the subjective nature of a merit based system and highlights the tendency of the Academy to push the boundaries and standards for otherwise limited awards.
In many instances throughout history, the Academy has redefined the position of the Nobel Prize in intellectual and scientific communities, and has chosen some highly controversial winners. Most recently, in 2009, Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace prize after less than a year into his Presidency: they cited his potential to bring about change as the impetus for the choice. This led to general outrage in the international intellectual community, and even prompted Obama himself to claim, “I do not feel I deserve to be in the company of such great leaders.” The committee also expanded the Literature category in 1997, when Dario Fo was chosen for his performance art pieces along with his written works.
In a sense, choosing Bob Dylan as the winner is simply a way of reinforcing the Academy’s efforts to push the boundaries of what is considered literature, especially because there is no section for music that he could be honored in. This has been done before in the other categories; after John Nash won the award for economics in 1994 for what was actually a combination of sociology and game theory, the category expanded to include these tangential fields, as well as the academic circles accompanying them. Some also saw Dylan’s win as a victory of inclusion for what is considered “low culture” – forms of popular and consumer culture not usually recognized by intellectual awards such as the Nobel or Pulitzer. As LA Times Journalist Carolyn Kellogg stated, “The Nobel, in recognizing Dylan’s work as literature, acknowledges that artists create works of popular culture with just as much care, control, courage and genius as Ernest Hemingway did sitting down at a typewriter.”
However, while choosing Dylan does seem to insinuate a stretching of the Literature category, we have reason to doubt that this decision will lead to an overall inclusion of music as part of the literature prize. After the Academy released the nomination, it stressed that Dylan was picked for his written word only, and not the musical aspects associated with it. According to Nobel Permanent Secretary Sara Danius, the justification for the award follows the argument that poetry has been accompanied by music since the classical tradition. She argues, “We still read Homer and Sappho [without music] and we still enjoy it. And the same thing with Bob Dylan. He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the grand English poetic tradition.”
But this categorization of Dylan as a poet rather than a musician is somewhat problematic for his own legacy, as well as for those of the other writers. First of all, it presents him with an award that is supposed to recognize a lifetime achievement while honoring what is technically only half of his work. It seems artificial to attempt to separate the lyrical aspect of Dylan’s compositions from the melodic since they were conceived as a single, whole work. It also sidelines the achievements of those whose portfolios are produced solely in the literary field, effectively eliminating traditional writers —such as Philip Roth, who was considered a favorite for this year’s choice — from contention for an award that was created for them. It implies that “a byproduct of Dylan’s main job is as good or better than the life’s work of Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, Adonis, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or so many other authors theoretically in contention.”
Ultimately, the choice of whether or not this is true must be left up to the individual. The anachronism “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has always held some truth, for better or for worse, and once a piece of art is created, the producer will never be around to justify it. Therefore, while criticism and analysis of certain works may have broad, sweeping trends, there is always room for a dissenting opinion. This subjectivity also makes presenting awards for the “best” of anything very difficult; someone will always think that another piece deserves the honor. In the end, the Academy has the power to expand their categories at their own discretion; they will always be able to justify testing the limits of the boundaries they set for themselves by simply adding on to the pre-existing precedents for the awards. So while Dylan may not be a traditional choice to represent the best of today’s literature, by giving the Nobel Committee the power to give the award at their own discretion, we have placed in their hands the ability to shape the classifications for winners as well.