In the days before Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, a certain news story had just broke, flooding my Facebook feed with pussy jokes, ludicrous 50 Shades comparisons and clips of Scott Baio saying, “I like Trump because he talks like a guy!” In the days after Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, my Facebook feed was filled with heated discussion over what qualified as literature, whether or not song lyrics were poetry and if Philip Roth or Thomas Pynchon were more worthy recipients. For this, I thank the Swedish Academy from the depths of my soul.
People were still pissed, but now there was passion in the mix. My writer friends took it personally: “Hasn’t the world of books suffered enough?” (Yes, someone was unfriended.) An article in The Telegraph bemoaned our ever-sinking standards: “A culture that gives Bob Dylan a literature prize is a culture that nominates Donald Trump for president.” Someone in The New York Times said, “No one would expect the highest honors in music to go to a writer. We won’t be seeing Zadie Smith or Mary Gaitskill in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” This would perhaps be a tad less hilarious if the writer had instead mentioned Stephen King and Amy Tan, two authors who have at least played real gigs in an actual band.
In Dylan’s defense, culture critic Eric Weisbard posted, “Does it really need to be explained that literature is no more words on a page than art is a hand drawing a line?” The primary complaint—that his lyrics can’t be divorced from his songs—was countered with questions like, “Then how can Harold Pinter’s plays be divorced from their performances?” Several people looked to Van Morrison, who famously anointed Dylan as “the greatest living poet.” This is coming from the guy who once belted out, “Did you ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge, baby!” So that settles it for me. That and the fact that I cannot understand how anyone could listen to “Tangled Up in Blue” and still not think Dylan is a man of letters.
All of this, of course, is right in line with the Dylan narrative. From the moment he arrived in New York City on January 24, 1961, the world has never known what to make of him or how to ignore him. In turn, he’s remained an ever-elusive paradox, balancing an undying need to play for us with a firm commitment to not giving a f*ck. I say we take all the world’s awards—a Tony, some Oscars and Emmys, a James Beard, whatever they give for science—and put them in a Hefty bag, so he can toss them in a closet or dumpster somewhere. To quote the man himself, “It’s not to anyone’s best interest to think about how they’ll be perceived tomorrow.”
Given how much Dylan has always hated labels, one might have thought he’d appreciate his music being honored as literature. But a week after the announcement, the Swedish Academy still hadn’t heard from him and doesn’t know if he’ll attend the ceremony in December. Nothing, not even a Nobel, will keep Dylan from being Bob Dylan.