Upon hearing that Bob Dylan is the latest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the online world went into a bit of a frenzy. Part of this, I’m sure, is the result of wanting to have something — anything — to talk about that is not the current US election and the spectacularly ugly implosion of its Republican candidate. But, much of the discussion, especially the negative discussion, revealed something about what both the Nobel for Literature and its new laureate mean culturally.
To begin with an uncomfortable truth, in the consciousness of popular culture the Nobel for Literature really doesn’t mean that much most of the time; nor, these days, does Bob Dylan. The former is apparent when one considers today’s other Nobel news: the death, this morning, of past winner Dario Fo; while his passing was certainly mentioned and mourned in literary circles, neither his passing, nor his winning in 1997, made that much of an impression on the popular culture at large, at least not in the Anglophone world. As for the latter, while many or most people certainly know Bob Dylan’s name and possibly some of his songs, few people under the age of 40, I suspect, really know much about him and his importance to the popular song form.
But what people do know about the Nobel (or think they know) is this: it is the closest thing available to an official ratification of high-cultural signficance. It’s such a big deal that we call its winners “laureates,” after the ancient Greeks and Romans honoured by the gods for excellence. Nobel-winning literature is difficult but good for you: it’s what your most annoying university professor made you read, but you still feel as if you’ve accomplished something by getting through it. On the other hand, what people know (or think they know) about Bob Dylan is this: he’s an old rock star from half a century ago, and rock music in 2016 is neither respectable nor fashionable. It’s archaic and creaky, while still imagining itself to be a music of rebellion; it’s the sort of stuff your embarrassing dad likes. Put those together, and hoo boy.
This is why so many of the negative reactions have taken the form they have: a combination of can the Nobel committee debase itself further? and *eyeroll* ugh, Boomers. It’s a weird combination of desire for authoritative, respectable markers of high culture, and irritation at the elder gatekeepers who inevitably are the ones who decide what those markers are. But other reactions have been more interesting. For example, some have noted the injustice that, while the Nobel committee were willing to stretch genres this year to make an unusual choice, nevertheless there is not a single woman Nobel winner — in any category whatsoever — in 2016. The Nobels’ daring, thus, seems limited in scope, imagination, and equity. Or, to take another example, others have wondered why lyricists such as Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell can’t be similarly honoured, or why Dylan is given credit for inventing things that, in truth, he stole or imitated from other artists who came before him (as all artists, to be fair, do).
But for the most part, the negative reaction seems to me reflective of an anxiety, never quite stated out loud, that songs are not literature and that we’d like the Nobels to let us know with some confidence what literature really is, thanks. We seek ratification of culture in an uncertain world, and if we can’t have that, then surely all is going to hell. One Twitter joke got passed around this morning, implying that surely a Nobel will be headed Nickelback’s way any time now — as if there is no way, in the realm of popular music, to distinguish good stuff from bad stuff.
The uncomfortable truth is, “literature” is a contested and possibly outdated concept. What makes novels literature and songs not is merely convention, and that convention has changed over time and will continue to do so. The line between literature and not-literature is as much a conscious judgement as the line between good literature and bad. The reactions to Dylan’s win suggest mostly that people have been suddenly made aware of this fact, and aren’t quite sure what to do about it.
The question I have, really, is this: can you imagine the collective freakout when, not if , but when at some point the Nobel in Literature goes to a graphic novelist? Someone like Seth, or Art Spiegelman, or Sydney Padua? Maybe a graphic journalist like Joe Sacco, or an autobiographer like Alison Bechdel? Now that will be an interesting day.