Bob Dylan was announced as the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this month. That’s right, literature. Giving such a prestigious award to a famous lyricist has sparked heavy controversy in the literary community, and a variety of opinions are pouring forth from readers, writers and listeners alike—from everyone, it seems, except Dylan himself.
But how did this happen? Visiting associate professor of English at Washington and Lee University Gordon Ball said he is behind Dylan’s nomination. “I nominated Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize more than a dozen times,” he said in an article for The Washington Post. Ball claimed that Dylan’s poetic lyrics fit the criteria just as well as the work of any other prizewinner.
Nominators must be of proper qualifications; they are usually literature or linguistics professors, past laureates, presidents of national writers’ groups or the like.
Alfred Nobel specified that the recipient of the prize must be “the most outstanding ... Of an idealistic tendency” and that they must “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” To fit these criteria, Ball cites Dylan’s many idealistic, activist-charged lyrics.
Dylan won the Tom Paine Award for songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Oxford Town.” In the 60s, many of his lyrics turned a critical eye to political authority. Their thought provoking nature is believed to have played a possible role in the public’s response to Watergate in 1972.
To Ball, it’s the lyrics’ longevity and impact on social and political change—in addition to their poetic nature—that make Dylan deserving of the award. Whether or not his writing comes with a musical backdrop does not negate the fact that it is, in fact, great writing, making it just as eligible as any past winners. Such is the argument of supporters like Ball. But everyone doesn’t share this opinion.
One of Dylan’s biggest skeptics throughout the nomination process was Alex Shephard, editor at The New Republic. He was one of many who never believed Dylan would actually win, as he was under the impression that despite Dylan’s skill and value as a musician and lyricist, he should never have been considered in the first place.
“He is a musician,” Shepard said. “It’s a category error. Music is an entirely different mode of expression that uses tools that are unavailable to the writer.”
In addition, many believe that giving Dylan an award for literature is a shame because it takes away an opportunity for talented, hard-working traditional writers to gain notoriety. Traditionally, when an author wins the prize, his or her works fly off the shelves and are translated into other languages for all to read. Dylan hardly needs any help gaining spotlight.
But, despite these arguments, the strangest response of them all has been Dylan’s. The star has all but completely ignored the Swedish Academy, who is responsible for the award. No public statement from Dylan has been made—save for a brief mention of the award on his website, which he quickly removed after the media caught wind of it. The Academy has officially agreed to let Dylan respond to the award in his own time, firmly expressing that it is his decision to accept or decline, just the same as every winner.
One Academy member, however, recently expressed their personal opinion, considering Dylan’s silence to be “impolite and arrogant.” Some wonder if perhaps the Swedish Academy regrets its decision. Nevertheless, the ball lies in Dylan’s court now. All we can do is wait for his response.