Only half a year has passed since Bob Dylan was announced winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature and he has already managed to go pick it up. This past weekend he had a concert at Waterfront in Stockholm so on Saturday evening, before the concert, he had a private meeting with twelve of the Swedish Academy members. According to attending sources they drank champagne and spent some time looking at the back of the prize medal. It’s all hush-hush and no media was invited. Personally I think a sense of mystery is the best marketing strategy one can use, under the right circumstances, and I even imagine Dylan might have watched some The Young Pope.
Another student already wrote about the prize when Dylan was announced winner; and there was a lot of opinions going around in general. There is nothing we love as we love some controversy. Hence, as a publishing student I still feel the need to think about the questions his win raises.
First of all: what is literature? Dylan does not write what we commonly associate with literature – he writes songs. The Swedish Academy acknowledges as much, and this is what they rewarded. On the one hand, one could argue that they take the sense of tradition to an extreme, considering that my education in literature taught me that the troubadour tradition belongs within literature. It is basically poems about love with music composed to it, and some people do like to argue that the same goes for contemporary lyrics.
Without going into detail, this is an argument which could be made and it may be convincing. But why is it so upsetting? For one of our recent seminars we read an article by the sociologist Joel Best called “Prize Proliferation” (Sociological Forum, 2008), on the topic of the title. Best states that award giving is the “want to recognize and reward exceptional performance, to bestow esteem on the deserving”. It “affirms and embodies the group’s values”, meaning that we as a social group are affirming Dylan as the most deserving within the category of ‘people making literature’. Subsequently, we have a problem with our collective values not being reinforced if we don’t agree on the basic premise that Dylan is, in fact, making literature. Do we even belong together? Can the Nobel Prize continue to represent our collective idea of literary taste?
Since Dylan never used to be seriously considered to be making literature, the debate was easy to predict. Some people called the Academy’s choice “brave”, but I am not convinced bravery is what it took. Rather, we got a wonderful show in the media and all over Twitter which implanted the Nobel Prize in the minds of millions of people. This will not be forgotten, it will be written about and remembered as a highlight in the history of the prize. We will see it on encyclopedia pages forever after and ride off into the sunset. It is hard to imagine that for example Herta Müller’s win in 2009 will be remembered as a landmark, but this might.
So when Vanity Fair wrote that “Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize has been something of a saga”, I agree. It has been a wonderfully entertaining marketing trick allowing us all to be more emotional this year than usual (at least in Sweden), and publishers got to sell more books. But most important of all: the Swedish Academy finally got to meet Bob Dylan.