Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Somebody tell Watson. They seemed close.
The grizzled pitchman for Cadillac, Pepsi, Victoria Secret and IBM has been awarded the highest prize in Literature, for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Well, duh. Or, they could just ask the 98% of songwriters who know he is the master. Let the other 2 % seek help for mythomania.
The Swedish Academy also made reference to his “sampling”, i.e. taking both obscure songs and literature and incorporating them into his own compositions. Snippets from Civil War poems, film noire dialogue and Japanese novels find their way into Dylan’s songs, shaken slightly to Dylanize the language and cadence. Dylan himself never cites an attribution, leaving it to the Internet bloodhounds to connect the dots. A vast, amorphous body of Dylanologists root out every word he utters in a fantastical game of gotcha, but they do it in the spirit of a tipsy Easter Egg hunt. To the critics who think this technique diminishes his work, Bob replies: Pussies and Wussies. They can rot in hell. He laid down this gauntlet in that revolutionary rag, AARP Magazine.
Still much reaction from the non-bob world to his Nobel has been, at least initially, negative. Serious literary folk are upset. Not only did their favorite Brazilian novelist or South Korean poet or Ukrainian playwright get overlooked again, but it is too galling to lose to a folk singer. They say it with the clear implication that a novel with a readership of 1,500 is inherently of more literary value than a song which reaches millions.
The objection seems to be the form he works in, popular song. Since they are written to be performed, they are somehow different in kind from work written for the page. But playwrights have received the Nobel, and plays too are only fully realized when the curtain rises. It seems plays are more intuitively serious in form to a certain mindset, i. e. intellectual snobs.
Other intellectuals, though, embrace Dylan as a literary master. Salmon Rushdie and the late Christopher Hitchens used to quote Dylan lyrics to each other as an ongoing game, wedging them into irrelevant conversations as time and wit allowed. Physicists, Mathematicians, Jurists amuse themselves by sneaking Dylan lyrics into professional papers by the thousands. Barack Obama has Bob on the presidential play list. Discovering the deeper meaning of his lyrics is integral to the pleasure. Very high brows have furrowed over the images in songs like Visions of Johanna, Gates of Eden, Desolation Row, All Along the Watchtower, Señor, I & I, Ain’t Talking.
Adults who take him seriously as an artist do so with a vengeance. Dylan inspires a passionate defense from a coterie of wildly dissimilar backgrounds. The brainiacs love him, but no more than millions of other rabid fans, a few folks from nearly every neighborhood,in nearly every workplace, from nearly every corner of the globe. They share one trait. They believe Dylan speaks to them on a fundamentally personal level.
The irony is, non-fans know Bob Dylan only from his earliest work. The protest singer who wrote Blowin’ in the Wind, Maggie’s Farm, Masters of War. The sarcastic hipster who sang Don’t Think Twice, giving cover to rip ‘n run boyfriends for three generations. The fans he lost when he released his first Christian album never came back, but they kept playing Blonde On Blonde to their grand kids. Who think Adele wrote Make You Feel My Love.
The 100 plus concerts Dylan gives every year, the Bob-coined Never-Ending Tour, keeps him playing in front of crowds but very few show up for the music. People come to see the legend, the Icon, the Voice of his generation. And now, Nobel Laureate.
I’m writing this the morning the news came out. Just first thoughts, but I hope it’s clear. I am one of those who love Bob Dylan. I have 482 of his songs on my Spotify playlist. I’ve spent more hours with his work than any other artist by a considerable margin. I’ve consulted with his music at every major change in my life, not as a religion, as a reflex. I’ve spent my idle days with him too, storing up, letting his words settle in for when they’re needed. I expect that at the moment when my life passes before my eyes, it will have a Dylan sound tract.
Just like every other true Dylan fan. Until we talk tomorrow and with just a smudge of resentment, this is Danny from the Block with surprising news.