I like Bob Dylan’s music. I acknowledge that he is a genius, and his cultural impact prodigious. I am also not necessarily concerned with whether or not his work should be considered literature – something that has been too much the focus of the debate surrounding the choice to award him the Nobel Prize. Regardless of whether song-writing should now be considered literature or not, one thing about his work remains indisputably true: whatever else it may be, it is definitely music.
It is no secret that literary awards, such as the Man Booker Prize or the Pulitzer, do not receive the same social media hype, nor fame and recognition for its winners that surround music awards such as the Grammys. Popular music already receives the recognition it deserves; there are countless Grammys to be won, lifetime achievement awards to be had and celebrity to enjoy. Bob Dylan has, deservedly, enjoyed all of these privileges. Why, then, should a man who has been internationally renowned in another field receive a prize that could have been better reserved for a critically acclaimed essayist, dramatist, poet or novelist who would benefit much more from its prestige?
Perhaps the biggest absurdity surrounding this debate, however, would be those lauding the decision as revolutionary. Although redefining the scope of literature to include music may be exciting and engaging, it seems to lose its radical zeal when it is done solely to reward yet another white western male. Yes, Dylan has written some beautiful songs that oppose the Vietnam War and incorporate many literary influences. But what of Alice Walker, who risked her life and safety under Jim Crow laws to produce critically acclaimed literature on the plight of black women? She too participated in the civil rights movement, but at much greater personal risk than Dylan. Would it not have been more ‘revolutionary’ to award her the Prize, or indeed even writers who also blend form and reenergise literature, such as Anne Carson?
It goes without saying that white men are celebrated in popular culture for their achievements in abundance already. Many, such as Dylan, deserve to be. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t just as many female or minority artists who deserve the same recognition, and it seems nonsensical to award the world’s most prestigious literary award to a man already so widely celebrated in another field. Since 1901, 825 men have won a Nobel Prize compared to 47 women. Considering literature has always been a medium through which the marginalised have been given a voice, surely it would be more revolutionary to award the Prize to someone just as worthy, but who hasn’t been afforded the privilege of a white male voice to deliver their message.
Yes, Bob Dylan is a genius, and he deserves all of the accolades that he has received for his contribution to music. Yes, he has made a considerable and significant social impact through his work. But this doesn’t mean that there weren’t other candidates just as – if not more – deserving for whom the recognition would have been much more impactful and symbolic. Giving the Nobel Prize for Literature to a man already distinguished in another field only really serves as an insult to the countless other candidates who have the same talent, but not the same recognition.