Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Dear Nobel Prize Selection Committee Members:

I gave it some time. I read. I considered perspectives. I drank heavily and sobered up. Finally, I arrived at my conclusion: It was wrong, nay, fucked up as a soup sandwich, to award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature.

My conclusion is based on three factors:
   1)    Song lyrics are not literature
   2)    Bob doesn't need the recognition
   3)    Reading is hard

Let me preface this all by saying I agree that Dylan is a musical genius and hugely influential. What I take issue with is the categorization of what he does as literature. Literature affects a reader through narrative, imagery, and rhythm created with words. Traditionally, words are the sole arrow in the writer's quiver. (Yes, I'm aware of the historical connection between poetry and music, but poetry in a more modern sense is experienced most often on the page. And yes, I understand that spoken word artists intend their work to be performed and often blur lines between song and verse. If you committee folks felt like stirring things up, pushing boundaries and definitions, someone like poet Kate Tempest would actually have been a far more interesting choice.)

In literature, language does the work. A songwriter certainly needs to be skillful and creative with language. Songwriters also employ imagery and narrative. But the impact of the words comes from their marriage with music (voice, instrumentation) and performance. Together they make a powerful whole intended as an auditory experience. Do Dylan's words have merit without the addition of music and performance? Of course. But they don't have the impact (and I suspect they wouldn't have had the worldwide influence) without the other components. What's more, creating a literary work of art wasn't what Bob had in mind when he wrote the words. Some may argue that they find Dylan's words to have literary merit, to be wholly artistically satisfying, on their own. Fine. If you want to pore over Dylan lyrics, that's great. But it's not how he intended the words to be experienced. Separating the lyrics from the other components is like eating a basil leaf, taking a bite of mozzarella cheese, popping a bit of bread in your mouth, chasing it all with a tablespoon of tomato sauce and claiming you just ate a margherita pizza. All those individual ingredients might taste great on their own, but that's certainly not how the chef intended them to be experienced.

Giving the literature prize to a songwriter is akin to Major League Baseball awarding the MVP to a tennis star because both sports use a ball. Song lyrics are not literature just because words are involved. A sculpture might have an elaborately painted surface, but that doesn't make it a painting. The sculpture's impact is derived, in part, from its form. The painted surface is a component of the sculpture just like Dylan's words are a component of the song. Moving on.

The Nobel Prize is world recognition of the recipient's contribution and influence in a designated category. In the case of literature, the recipient likely has already achieved a level of fame within the literary world. But the awarding of the Nobel guarantees exposure to a much greater general audience. There is the opportunity for a new group of people to explore and be affected by the work. Dylan doesn't need the help. His work is ubiquitous: radio, TV, soundtracks, any college common room—opportunities abound for people to hear and be influenced by his work. There is also ample opportunity to ponder the genius and influence of Bob Dylan: numerous documentaries, MTV, VH1, Rolling Stone's lists of the most influential rockers. This just isn't the case with literature, and it needs an annual opportunity to be widely considered.

Reading is hard. It takes time and deep concentration. Poems, short stories, and novels demand a level of focus that many are not willing to give. It is solitary work. It can't (at least it shouldn't) happen speeding along the open road with the windows down. Music is amazing in part because of its immediate and profound impact. In moments, a song can change us forever and it can happen in a wide variety of contexts, many of them social. There are so many ways for people to be affected by music and lyrics every day. Many of us are plugged into it almost constantly. This isn't the case with books.

The Nobel Prize in Literature shines a brief but very bright light on a medium that is becoming increasingly marginalized. Even a successful writer is not going to spend much (okay, any) time in stadiums filled with their screaming fans. Let the pasty writers of the world have a moment in the sun. The deeply tanned rock stars won't mind if you leave them off the list of candidates for the Nobel Prize. If the committee really feels obliged to help out musicians and songwriters, add a category or two and let them actually be recognized for the amazing things that they do rather than for the things that they don't.

Jason M. Marak