Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Nobel Dylan

Amit Varma writes of the Nobel committee redefining literature. He approves of the award to Bob Dylan, saying:
What matters is that the Nobel Prize Committee, with this bold award to Bob Dylan, has acknowledged that literature exists outside the narrow confines of past conventions. For this, they must be congratulated.

I would say that times have changed the criteria for the Nobel judges. The citation “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” could equally well have applied to the lyricists of the golden age of American musicals, like Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter. Those two may have been felt to be disengaged from politics or daily life*, but Ira Gershwin and the more controversial - and under-celebrated - Maxwell Anderson certainly had a broad range including political commentary. Nearer our own time, Stephen Sondheim changed the shape and status of musical theatre, reaffirming the need for original, literate lyrics. None were recognised with a Nobel award.

I follow Varma's reasoning, and that of other writers who endorse the Nobel award, but I disagree with it. It introduces fuzziness to the definition of literature, an amorphousness into which the term "music" has already disappeared. Dylan's lyrics are great, rising above the general level of all the popular genres in which he has performed. (One could say the same of Joni Mitchell, whose lyrics I find more poetic, and of Paul Simon.) But they are not literature on a par with Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, Gunter Grass or even Dario Fo, who passed away yesterday, among other Nobel laureates.

The comparison with Shakespeare is very slippery. If Dylan has a literary antecedent, it is surely the transgressive François Villon - but his place in the literary pantheon is also debated.

(By the way, I am glad to see that many of the commentators admire one of my favourite tracks, "Black Diamond Bay". It is surreal and also captures the cynicism of the post-hippie generation which gave rise to his best-known work.)

* An exception is Porter's "Love for Sale". I recommend the Shirley Bassey version.

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