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Just a songwriter? Bob Dylan's polarizing Nobel win

Inclusive or pandering? Baby boomer nostalgia or broadening definition of literature?

Jessica Wong - CBC News

October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. Not everyone is pleased. (AFP/Getty Images)

Bob Dylan, Nobel laureate: the iconic American musician's latest accolade has the public buzzing.

In some years, you've likely never heard of the Nobel Prize in Literature winner. But you'd be hard-pressed to have never encountered, in one form or another, Dylan: legendary folk-rock troubadour; inspiration to songwriters from Springsteen to Sheeran; and hawker of cars to computer systems to "ladies garments."

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The Swedish Academy's choice is a polarizing one: some welcome Dylan's win as inclusive, while others blast it as populist pandering.

"His words have been an inspiration to me ever since I first heard a Dylan album at school, and I am delighted by his Nobel win. The frontiers of literature keep widening, and it's exciting that the Nobel Prize recognizes that," acclaimed author Salman Rushdie — a rumoured Nobel contender himself — said in a statement that echoed similar congratulations from the likes of U.S. President Obama, fellow American Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and others.

On the flip side, however, were quips that mocked or even pilloried the decision.

"I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard," quipped writer Gary Shteyngart on Twitter, while Trainspotting author and playwright Irvine Welsh blasted out several biting posts as well.

"I'm a Dylan fan, but this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies."

Songwriting as literature?

Since 1901, the literature committee has recognized a variety of writers. Most have been novelists, poets, essayists and playwrights, but the list has also acknowledged historical works, short stories, memoirs, criticism, screenplays and books of philosophy.

The recognition of Dylan, "the poet laureate of all rock and roll," lends legitimacy to the notion that rock music can be considered serious art, according to music writer and broadcaster Alan Cross.

"Dylan has, first and foremost, always been a poet. You don't necessarily listen to Bob Dylan's songs for the music alone or for his singing voice. You listen for the message. You listen for the wordplay. You listen for the artistic and political and social expression in him," Cross told CBC News.

Viewing Dylan lyrics as poetry isn't something new. The Norton Introduction to Literature, an American high school and university textbook, includes the lyrics to Mr. Tambourine Man.

His songwriting has been included in courses taught by Canadian colleagues as far back as 25 years ago, recalls Tracy Ware, a Queen's University professor in the department of English language and literature.

"We're much less likely to lapse into those old, hard categories than we used to be," he told CBC News on Thursday.

Nobel going populist?

Though few question Dylan's musical influence, critics of his Nobel win draw a line between his writing and what they consider literature.

'Bob Dylan writes rather simple, populist lyrics to popular songs with popular sentiments that most people share.' - Russell Smith

Far from a populist prize, the Nobel has tended to reward serious, cerebral books by international authors about "big issues — issues like international migration, race, gender — or very delicate stylists.… Bob Dylan writes rather simple, populist lyrics to popular songs with popular sentiments that most people share," noted author and columnist Russell Smith.

Smith said discussion among his friends on Thursday swirled around whether the Swedish Academy, which has been accused of bias against U.S. authors, chose Dylan to pacify Americans and to appear less elitist. Others wonder whether the committee is dominated by baby boomers who grew up with Dylan's music.

"Perhaps the Nobel committee is making a statement about being relevant in a world in which pop culture is valued even by academic critics.… It is possible that they were trying to make a statement like that. It is also possible that they were simply suffering from nostalgia," Smith said.

"We're all wondering now whether it represents a change in direction away from the cerebral and more towards the accessible and populist.… If it does, I won't be happy personally, because I'm a snob," Smith added, with a laugh.

"I think that the most interesting literature is challenging in the sense that it is complicated and dense inside. It's technically, formally adventurous and complicated. Nobel Prizes have tended to reward literature like that. So I will be sad if we lose that."

In Eliot's footsteps

Some people continue to define literature too narrowly, according to Ware, a longtime Dylan devotee who has admittedly never incorporated the new Nobel laureate's lyrics into his classroom.

He praises Dylan as a musical scholar who "can play off of [musical] traditions in a way that is as exciting as T.S. Eliot plays off literary traditions."

The juxtaposition of "high art" versus "low art" has existed for a long time, but some of the greatest artists break these polarities and combine them, he added. Take Eliot, for example.

"He was fascinated by music-hall comedies in England and thought of the possibility of bringing it into poetry. And that's what he did in The Waste Land," Ware said of the American-born British poet's masterpiece.

"That side of Eliot is the side you see in Dylan."

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