Alfred Nobel’s will states that the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature must be one who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Bob Dylan, most famous for his work as a singer/songwriter, has recently become a reluctant recipient of this prize.
He has not explicitly voiced this reluctance; instead, it’s evident in his silence. The Nobel Committee’s Permanent Secretary has claimed that Dylan is ignoring all of their attempts to reach him, including not only emails but phone calls and an invitation to the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in December. Even Dylan’s website made the most minute mention of the prize, only to have it removed hours later.
Setting aside Dylan’s strange behavior, his winning the award for literature has ignited a debate between scholars of both literature and music. Critics in both fields argue that Dylan’s work does not fit the qualifications to win the prize. This argument extends to the quality of Dylan’s writing, including a resurfaced quote from author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. calling Dylan the “worst poet ever.” It’s worth pointing out that it’s often Dylan’s delivery of his lyrics which give them power, not the words themselves, prompting many to question how Dylan’s work constituted literature.
Meanwhile, proponents of Dylan’s winning the medal cite his influence on not just music, but culture as a whole. Personally, I’m not going to argue whether or not Dylan deserved the prize, or even the semantics of his work qualifying as literature. I suspect I agree with Dylan himself when I ask, “Did Bob Dylan really need another prize?” Among a myriad of other honors, Dylan has won Academy Awards, Grammys, Golden Globes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and his songs make up a literal percentage of the Hall’s ‘500 songs that shaped rock and roll’. It’s inarguable that Dylan has, as the committee claims, “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Whether or not Dylan deserved the award, he didn’t need it. His name is already a household item, even to those who can’t name a single one of his songs, or correctly place his genre. The prize is intended to shed light upon underappreciated artists, especially those who need the money that comes with it to further their own work. The prize itself will be lost in Dylan’s shadow, the considerable amount of money that comes with it is dwarfed by his accumulated wealth. “Nobel Prize Winner” will be far from the first thing on most people’s minds when they consider his musical legacy. For now, Bob Dylan is silent, the Nobel Committee is frustrated, and critics from all sides voice the contention of his winning the prize.