Opinion |

Bob Dylan's Genius Doesn't Lie in His Writing, Nobel Prize or Not

There's no doubt Bob Dylan deserves the highest form of recognition, but awarding him literature's most prestigious award threatens to deepen an existing distortion of his work: That he is a great writer who is also a singer.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Bob Dylan graffiti.
Bob Dylan graffiti.Credit: Dreamstime
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

It was supposed to be the ultimate badge of honor for an artist who (almost) nobody denies is one of the great artists of the 20th century, but apparently the decision to award Bob Dylan - the singer Bob Dylan - the Nobel Prize in Literature developed very quickly into a stormy and aggressive debate, replete with attacks and even insults, mainly within the international literary community. Famous writers claimed that awarding the prize to Dylan, who is neither a writer nor a poet, is a farce. Others replied that written and sung poetry have been intertwined since the dawn of history. Angry tweets were worded very carefully. Metaphoric fists were balled.

Dylan's non-literary fans could stand on the sidelines and smile. We're used to stormy disputes about the way he sings and performs. We like to argue about it. It's amusing to see writers quarreling about the significance of the choice in the context of literary politics. Is that of any importance when it comes to Dylan's art? His legacy? His status? Not really.

Apparently the prize committee didn't anticipate the storm ensuing from their choice. Had they been aware, perhaps they would have explained their choice more carefully. Dylan received the award "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". According to the announcement. There is no serious response here to the claim that the Nobel Prize in Literature should be awarded only to a writer or a poet, and not to an artist who was influenced by literature, and perhaps influenced literature, and whose songs have a clearly literary dimension, but who is neither a writer nor a poet, since Dylan's art happens very far from the written page – in the meeting point of word, sound and voice.

The Nobel Prize is the most prestigious award that a person can win. Dylan is undoubtedly worthy of winning a prize of such stature. But there is no musical prize that is parallel to the Nobel in terms of prestige, or that even comes close. A Grammy for Lifetime Achievement for Dylan? Really exciting news. And that's why we have the absurd situation in which Dylan is receiving the Nobel for an aspect that although significant, is far from being the main, defining aspect of his art and his contribution to humanity. In that sense the choice of Dylan really does seem forced.

Could the choice have negative consequences? The literary people are arguing as to whether it has a damaging effect on their field of endeavor. We won't intervene in this bloody battle. And what about Dylan himself and the proper reflection of his music work in the collective awareness? In that sense the sensation of the Nobel is liable to create a certain distortion in the way Dylan is perceived, or to be more precise: to intensify a distortion that already exists.

Dylan is often seen as a great writer who is also a singer. In this view, his texts are the main thing, and because he has chosen to sing them himself we should respect his choice and somehow overcome his sandpaper voice in order to hear the message. That is an entirely mistaken attitude towards Dylan. His writing really did open new horizons in popular music, but the letters on the page are only one component of the whole that makes Dylan a great artist.

He is a great singer, who is capable of vocal expression full of emotion, or alternatively cruel and wounding, as he chooses. He has a wonderful, virtuoso sense of rhythm. The way he changed his musical horizon every few years (and at his peak every few months) inspired innumerable artists.

Dylan himself has often expressed his vehement rejection of the view that his texts are the most important part of his work. The tremendous prestige of the Nobel is now liable to intensify this mistaken conception even more. It will be very interesting to see whether Dylan himself will mention that when he comes soon to Stockholm to accept the prize.



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