By now you have heard that Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". You may have greeted the news with skepticism, outrage, joy or confusion, or maybe all of those at once. It's an announcement that requires some unpacking.
Is songwriting poetry?
The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, nonchalantly lists Bob Dylan as a poet, but literary scholars have been debating for years about whether this should be the case. Clearly, lyrics do not need to be crafted as poems; they can succeed as part of a song. (Imagine submitting "Come on baby/Let's do the twist/Come on baby/Let's do the twist/Take me by my little hand/And go like this" to a magazine editor.) But that doesn't mean that lyrics can never stand apart from their music as examples of literary achievement.
America's former poet laureate Billy Collins told the New York Times that "Bob Dylan is in the two percent club of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page even without the harmonica and the guitar and his very distinctive voice. I think he does qualify as poetry."
Would Dylan's lyrics have ever moved a generation without that harmonica and guitar? It's unlikely.
Is Bob the best?
If we accept that songwriting can be poetry (or some subsection of literature), the question then arises of whether Dylan is really the best lyricist out there. Leonard Cohen, who immediately comes to mind as a suitable candidate, likened the win to "pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain," and there can be no doubt about the impact Dylan has had on popular music and even other potential Nobel winners. Joyce Carol Oates dedicated her short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" to Dylan and called the news "an inspired choice"... although she believed that the Beatles would have been an equally good, if not better, option.
Expanding the debate beyond whether Bob Dylan is the most deserving songwriter to whether he's the most deserving writer highlights a plethora of writers and poets (in the traditional, music-free sense) who have been snubbed in favour of a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who has already received multiple Grammys, a Oscar, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Oates and other favourites, such as Haruki Murakami and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, will have to wait another year.
Is this really innovative?
This year's announcement could be a cynical attempt to remain relevant or an innovative approach to the nature of literature, but it falls short of its goal on either count.
Every single one of the eleven Nobel Prize winners this year is a man. Nearly all of those men are white. In 115 years, only 14 women have received the Nobel Prize for Literature, and just four were women of colour. From the perspective of race and gender, this purported break from tradition is anything but. One has to wonder what Dylan, whose songs formed part of the soundtrack of America's civil rights movement and who has remained typically tight-lipped about his most recent honour, thinks about that.