By Mani Thangadurai
Being awarded a Nobel Prize in any field is an honor which simply cannot be described or quantified; it sets you apart in your field as a master of your craft whose work has indeed left an indelible impact or a lasting legacy on the world and on humanity.
There is no doubt that Bob Dylan is one of the most iconic musicians of our times. Many of Dylan’s songs have been masterful in their prosaicness and relatability, and it’s for this reason that a large community of people identify with his music.
However, the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Dylan in commemoration of his “…having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” is an event which has rightly not been without its share of controversy, for a myriad of reasons.
I am a very firm believer that a Nobel Prize should be a means of honoring and celebrating excellence in a particular field and only in that particular field. While Dylan has himself authored many works of literature, he has made his name and reputation as a singer-songwriter and as a singer-songwriter alone. At the risk of sounding elitist, it has precious little, if anything, to do with literature or even poetry.
There is no doubt that songwriters are poets in essence, but there is also a reason why songwriting and poetry are two completely different kettles of fish.
To me, music can probably be looked at as a constraint in the sense that it limits or truncates the paradigm of poetic expression into a few bars and notes. Genuinely good poetry doesn’t need such a medium for expression, in fact the greatest poetry has been celebrated in its absence.
So this brings up a hypothetical question-would Dylan’s lyrics have anywhere near the same impact or acclaim if it weren’t for his accompanying music? Even a song like the late and great John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is noteworthy for its comparative lack of lyrical content, really only made famous by the austerely beautiful piano music and Lennon’s own lilting vocals. While no-one doubts the significance of the message of the song, in terms of poetic value it certainly isn’t worthy of a Nobel Prize nomination, probably not even a Pulitzer Prize nomination!
Oh, and it should be mentioned that in 2008 Dylan actually won a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize jury himself for “…his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”
And here lies the crux of this article. My biggest fear is that with popular music being a far-reaching medium, a large number of popular music fans might not really appreciate the significance of written songs without the music to back it up. In addition, this could be the start of a worrying trend where popular cultural personalities might only be given these awards not so much for the merit of their work but for the fact that that more people choose to be aware of them. Quite simply, this could prove to be a sad indictment on the state of the masses’ appreciation for genuine literature and poetry.
In addition, we might even need to ask a pertinent question-is the Nobel Prize losing its significance?
Surely there must be strict guidelines for a person and his or her work to be considered for a Nobel nomination, particularly the quality of that person’s work pertaining to that field alone and/or his or her time of dedicated service to that field.
Such personalities on the whole prefer to shy away from the public consciousness and let their work speak for themselves. Is it in any way fair for them and their work to be ignored simply because not many more people know about them? Many fine novelists like the Japanese Haruki Murakami or the American Philip Roth have been passed over for this coveted prize, and their works have arguably been of great significance in the world of fiction and current affairs as well.
To me, the answer is simple. There should be much stricter guidelines for nominating people for the Nobel Prize in any field. The person’s body of work and his or her dedication to that field must be two strong considerations. The reasoning is simple-with a record of strong dedication comes a greater inbuilt respect for that field and what it stands for. And that in itself should accentuate the significance and prestige of such an award.
Sadly, awarding Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature is in itself a sad reminder of the culture we live in. In the words of Tim Stanley, historian and columnist for the UK’s Daily Telegraph, “A culture that gives Bob Dylan a literature prize is a culture that nominates Donald Trump for president. It is a culture uninterested in qualifications and concerned only with satisfying raw emotional need.”
Truer words have seldom been spoken. It’s up to us as people to break the shackles of popular culture and reaffirm our respect for the Nobel Prize and what it stands for.