As a part of the highbrow academic publishing community, what do you think about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature? I know you’re not putting out fiction and poetry. But does giving that kind of august recognition to an undoubtedly pop cultural figure diminish an award that at least had the rep for rewarding high (or at least slightly higher) culture? Or do you buy the committee’s argument that songwriting now belongs up on the mountain with poetry? Yours, R.Z.
Dear R.Z.: The Bolshevik remains indecisive, as often happens since The Party is no longer around to tell him what to think. On the one hand, I felt the headline to the news stories should have read: MAN WITH EVERYTHING GIVEN EVEN MORE. On the other, his elevation in a sense democratizes an award inevitably seen as snobby and elitist. The man became famous singing and writing the people’s music, after all, and then remained genuinely popular for fifty years. He’s that rare laureate known to the public, recognized for his/her impact, and beloved by millions. I am not sure that’s happened since Pablo Neruda or maybe John Steinbeck.
On yet another hand—if I may channel Durga or impersonate an octopus—the choice makes you wonder if attendance is way down at the ceremony. Still, going to a fourth hand, if the committee is sincere in granting songwriting an equal place with traditional poetry, Bob Dylan is a beyond-worthy choice, for even if you feel the need to criticize his popularity, you cannot dismiss his enormous cultural influence.
Fifth hand: then again, could they have not used their platform to elevate a folkie pop poet with a lower, non-Western profile, a figure who could have brought a world audience to a new folk music tradition—Maori, Okinawan, Egyptian, whatever? Isn’t that a stronger statement? But then, if it’s an award for merit, and if you grant that songwriters deserve consideration as literary figures, Dylan belongs. He’s even an acquired taste, the foremost pre-requisite for winners of the literary prize.
Though, moving on to the seventh hand, it’s a sterile selection. The award will not change Dylan’s life at all. Nor will it change music by opening up a new musical culture or the work of a significant but obscure artist to the wider world.
Hmm. I need help sorting this out. I will save the eighth hand to hold a double vodka.