Does the Nobel Prize Mean Anything?

Man, people sure love to get worked up about the Nobel Prize. Last month, the panel caused a stir when they announced that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Dylan has since been accused of being arrogant and undeserving by members of the panel, as they haven’t been able to reach him to actually give him the award; his website has removed mention of the win.)

            People flipped their lids. While some people rushed to defend Dylan, others slammed the decision. Who is Bob Dylan to win the Nobel Prize in Literature? Dylan is a singer-songwriter, not an author. He’s not a “real” writer. He doesn’t pen literature. Perhaps, if we wanted to be very generous, we could call some of his lyrics poems, but aside from that, Dylan has a very slim bibliography of anything remotely resembling what most people would call “literature.”
            Nonetheless, we could characterize Dylan as a wordsmith of sorts; he does write his songs, and many of them have important lyrics laden with meaning. It’s certain the award hasn’t been handed to Katy Perry for her work on obnoxious songs about getting drunk on Friday nights, kissing girls, and looking at boys’ “peacocks.” I think we would all have a very serious bone to pick with whoever was awarding this prize if that happened. Dylan’s songs at least have some deeper meaning; Dylan has often been called the voice of the 1960s counterculture generation. Songs like “The Times, They Are a Changin,” “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “All Along the Watchtower” speak to a generation that experienced massive social ruptures and upheaval. They speak to us generations later, who are experiencing similar social revolutions in the midst of technological change. We can certainly give Dylan credit for that.
            But is it literature? That’s the really gnawing question here—are song lyrics, profound and inventive and meaningful as they may be, literature? Poetry walks a fine line, but song lyrics, we’d be tempted to argue, ought not to be considered as “literature.” Even if we could construe them as simply being poetry.
            This then points to the blurring of the lines: What separates poetry from lyrics? Musical accompaniment, musical notation? What about lyrics that are read aloud without music? Does it then become poetry? What about poems that are performed by singing? And where does poetry fit into the scope of “literature”? Can poetry be literature, or is literature solely prose works?
            This is not a new argument, not in the slightest. It may be the first time a singer-songwriter has been awarded a prestigious prize in literature, but it is not the first time people have bickered about who deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature. The argument always centers on what, exactly, qualifies as literature. When John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize, there were plenty of people who voiced complaints, suggesting that Steinbeck didn’t deserve the win—that his novels, his writing, didn’t qualify as “literature.” Here we are, years later, studying Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath in high school English classes still. Is that not literature then? If not, what is literature? Is it Charles Dickens? We’ve established Dickens wrote poppy, serialized three-decker novels. What about Shakespeare? We look at his works as literature now, but there’s no denying those plays were written as popular entertainment for Elizabethan society. Does that mean Harry Potter is literature? What about Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight?
            So Bob Dylan’s win is contentious, yes. But the awarding of the prize has always been a contentious proposition, in part because no one quite knows how to define “literature.” And if we don’t know what literature is, does it mean anything to hand out an award for it? Does Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win cheapen the award somehow? Does it undermine its integrity? There are a lot of people who would say yes. But then, there were a lot of people who thought awarding the prize to Steinbeck did the same thing.


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