The list of Nobel Prize winners in literature includes playwrights, screenwriters, investigative journalists, essayists, non-fiction writers, novelist, biographers, short story writers, poets, artists, and actors. Yet, a singer-songwriter born in Minnesota in 1941 who is this year’s recipient has caused an uproar in literary and music circles alike. It seems that arguments are being made for what constitutes literature, and many people believe that Bob Dylan’s extensive and varied body of work does not.
As a teacher, I push my students to think about what counts as writing and in the same way, what counts as literature. Broadly defined, literature is a body of written work. We argue that it is a piece of work with value—artistic or intellectual—and we create this value based on the way in which the piece uses language and challenges the everyday use of the word. Contemporary scholars also discuss oral literature, focusing on performance art be is songs, spoken word, or expressive media.
I am not a Dylan scholar, but I am a scholar of popular culture and writing. I believe that language changes and evolves as do the ways in which we define language, define high, popular, and low culture and by extension make arguments for high and popular literature. When we use terms like “high culture,” “high art,” and “high literature” we are placing a value on the works of literature (or art) that are considered more valuable by those of certain class and cultural means. Although this is a somewhat simplistic take on different ways we define culture, we continue to view popular culture and popular media as a dumbing down of the “more important” works of those with a higher education or come from a higher social class. I find this problematic and appreciate all the ways in which Dylan receiving the award problematizes and challenges these concepts.
I believe that Dylan deserves this award. As Sarah Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said after the announcement, “We’re really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet – that’s the reason we awarded him the prize. He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards. And he’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”
I believe that the stories we traditionally choose NOT to tell are usually more important (and telling) than those we choose to tell. For me, Dylan’s continued use of the narrative of song to tell stories of social justice and to critique the status quo make his work one that deserves recognition. Starting in 1960 in Minneapolis and then soon moving to New York to play the clubs of Greenwich Village, Dylan crafted songs and lyrics that challenged social and political issues of the day.
Dylan used his work to comment on the civil rights movement with strong narratives addressing social justice issues. His “Only a Pawn in Their Game” is about the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” was released in 1964, not even a year after her murder. Dylan continued his writing about controversial and social issues in the 1970s when he wrote “Hurricane” after visiting Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in jail and proclaiming his innocence.
In the 1980s, Dylan to use his work as a tool for activism. He sang on “We Are the World,” participated in Live Aid, and pushed others to think about American farmers. In 1991 when he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Dylan performed his classic “Masters of War” and addressed the Gulf War.
In addition to the ways in which Dylan uses his writing as a tool for social justice, it is important to note that his work has previously been evaluated as literature and been given awards and critiqued as such. Dylan has been studied at universities. There have been symposiums on his work with literary critics and historians discussing its merits. His 2004 autobiography, “Chronicles: Volume One” was nominated for a National Book Award. The Pulitzer Prize jury also awarded Dylan a Special Awards and Citations in 2008 “For his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”
And, if you still do not believe Bob Dylan’s work is literature; if you do not believe Dylan is a writer, listen to NPR’s All Things Considered 2011 piece “Bob Dylan’s Words Find Place in Legal Writings” which discusses a study done by law professor Alex Long who found that by 2007 Bob Dylan’s writing had been cited 186 times in court filings and legal publications.
Dylan has been repeatedly named one of the most influential people of the 20th century with his poetry, social critique and his voice of the counterculture generation all named as reasons. With 36 studio albums spanning 50 years as well as a memoir, countless books of criticism about his work, and university and high school courses taught about his writing, Dylan has continually created writing that has impacted and influenced the world for over a half a century. Think about this.
Although my love for Dylan was quickly overtaken when I found punk rock and Brit pop, I still believe that Bob Dylan is one of the most important and prolific writers in contemporary literature. Bob Dylan has continually found ways to influence and inform new genres and impact the ways in which people think about their worlds.
I believe in stories. I believe in literature that changes people’s lives. I believe in the ways in which writing can find the truth, share the beauty, and also make us all uncomfortable for the most important reasons. I also believe that Bob Dylan’s work from a half-century ago is still timely and relevant. For, as he wrote in “Only a Pawn in Their Game”:
The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
’Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game