Congratulations to Bob Dylan, surprise winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. This is easily the most controversial award since they gave it to the guy who wrote Lord of the Flies, which was controversial only because it came next after the immensely popular 1982 prize for Gabriel García Márquez. Nobody can read the minds of the Nobel committee – it’s not that kind of award. You can’t argue that Dylan jumped the line in front of more deserving candidates, because there’s no internal logic to the process. Like most literary Nobels, except much more so, it comes out of the blue, giving Dylan fans a whole new glorious enigma to battle over. So settle in. This argument will take us years. If you’re looking to get silly, you better go back to from where you came.
According to the Swedish Academy, Dylan won “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Of course it’s not poetry, not even sung poetry. It’s songwriting, it’s storytelling, it’s electric noise, it’s a bard exploiting the new-media inventions of his time (amplifiers, microphones, recording studios, radio) for literary performance the way playwrights or screenwriters once did. It’s love, it’s theft, it’s the fire he built on Main Street and shot full of holes. He didn’t win for Chronicles, the finest rock & roll memoir ever. He didn’t win for Tarantula, his famously indecipherable blown-off novel. He didn’t win for his lyric sheets, which remain full of errors he’s never bothered to fix. (No, it’s not “don’t try No-Doz.” It’s “don’t tie no bows.”) He didn’t win for making it through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books or inventing the word “if’n.” Or his liner notes (“if you do not know where the Insanity Factory is located, you should hereby take two steps to the right, paint your teeth & go to sleep”) or his jokes (“I ordered some suzette, I said could you please make that crepe”). He won for inventing ways to make songs do what they hadn’t done before.
The best argument for Dylan’s Nobel Prize comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, even though he died a century before Shot of Love. His 1850 essay “Shakespeare; or the Poet,” from the book Representative Men, works as a cheat sheet to Dylan. For Emerson, Shakespeare’s greatness was to exploit the freedoms of a disreputable format, the theater: “Shakespeare, in common with his comrades, esteemed the mass of old plays, waste stock, in which any experiment could be freely tried. Had the prestige which hedges about a modern tragedy existed, nothing could have been done. The rude warm blood of the living England circulated in the play, as in street-ballads.”
This is a key point – Shakespeare was a writer/actor/manager hustling in the commercial theater racket for live crowds. He didn’t publish his plays – didn’t even keep written copies. Once it was onstage, he was on to the next one. (After his death, his friends had to cobble the First Folio together, mostly from working scripts, hence the deplorable state of his texts.) Low prestige meant constant forward motion. The theater was becoming a national passion, “but not a whit less considerable, because it was cheap.” He aimed his poetry at the groundlings: “It must even go into the world’s history, that the best poet led an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement.”
Dylan didn’t write many books either – his songs came out of that same “rude warm blood.” He makes sure you can’t reduce his songs to their verbal content, whether he’s choosing to go incomprehensible or comical. He likes to change his mind about the lyrics as he goes along, sometimes in mid-word. As he explained in 2004, “I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax. I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song.” The musical performance is what generates the lyric. “I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for instance, in my head constantly – while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”
The Nobel committee got this right – Dylan’s ongoing achievement in American song is a literary feat to celebrate in this gaudiest of ways. The fact that he’s won this award – yet another scandalous international incident to add to his resume – is something to celebrate as well. “These songs didn’t come out of thin air,” Dylan said last year in his instant-classic MusiCares speech, explaining his roots in the folk, blues and country tradition. “All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way.” It’s a door we’ve all been walking through ever since. So here’s to everything Dylan’s built over the past 60 years. And here’s to his next 60 years.
Watch Chicago Professor Steven Rings discuss the importance of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize.