Should Bob Dylan have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature? He certainly doesn’t need the money. But does he merit the applause?
Looking back at recent Nobel prizewinners in literature, I recognise only three of the names in the last ten years. This may say more about me than about the prizewinners, and we certainly wouldn’t want to turn it into a kind of oleaginous celebrity event like the Oscars. But three out of ten ain’t good, as Meat Loaf might have said – or to be more precise, Jim Steinman, since he wrote Meat Loaf’s songs.
There is little chance of Jim Steinman getting the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he did write some amazing lyrics, as did Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Dory Previn and John Fogerty, not to mention Chuck Berry, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Dougie Mclean, Billy Bragg, Paul Simon – and Rory and Calum Macdonald.
There is no reason why song lyrics shouldn’t be considered Nobel prize material. Are they literature? Well, they aren’t physics. Perhaps the very name of the prize – donated by the explosive Mr Nobel – has a subliminal effect and we think, pop songs aren’t very noble, are they?
Books are substantial things. Songs float around in the air, and they have tunes, which is cheating.
But I prefer to think of literature in terms of the effect it has on me and others. A few books have had profound effects on me: Catch-22 and The Lord of the Rings, to name but two, but also Lavondyss and Pale Fire. I don’t think it would be stretching the truth, however, to say that Bob Dylan has had a deeper effect on me than any book written in the last thousand years.
I was captivated by his lyrics from the outset, although – unlike all those journalists who based their approval on the early songs that everyone knows – I think his material from the late 60s and 70s was even more poetic and imaginative. And I don’t think I’m totally alone in admiring his singing: he threw out the boringly technical and introduced a whole new dynamic timing to the voice which was taken up by Mark Knopfler and many others.
Of course prizes are by their very nature subjective. Most of you will have nodded wisely when you read a few of the names above, and taken a mystified step back when you came to a couple of others.
Bob Dylan got his prize for “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. I can’t begin to argue with that. Objections come mainly from those who have only heard his songs from a distance and not paid them the compliment of close listening.
My only caveat would be that there is someone else who deserves the prize, and deserves it now. He too is a songwriter, a singer, a poet – and a novelist. He too gets to the heart of things and creates magic with words. He is not American; he is a Canadian. His name is Leonard Cohen. Perhaps they could share it.