The announcement that Bob Dylan will be given the Nobel Prize in Literature set off a predictable but not entirely pointless controversy. Is Dylan literature? If so, does he deserve a place next to Thomas Mann and T. S. Eliot? And, even then, is there a pragmatic argument to be made against giving another big prize to a pop-culture colossus at a time when so many worthy writers struggle in obscurity? Although my Dylan fandom is as immoderate as anyone’s–in 1998, I followed him around the country for several weeks and wrote about the experience for The New Yorker–I’ve been half-swayed by the less huffy protests. As the novelist Hari Kunzru has observed, a Nobel citation can exponentially increase a writer’s audience and help keep independent publishers afloat; in 2016, that opportunity was lost. On the other hand, Dylan did write the line “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain.”
Alex Ross makes an interesting comparison of Bob Dylan and Richard Wagner (Ross’s favorite composer), suggesting that they were both artists of Word and Tone.
However, I’m irked by the way Hari Kunzru’s odd comments have been amplified in many fora. This author seems to think that the Nobel prize is meant as a marketing tool to be granted to the downtrodden and unknown. Suggesting that the Nobel should help “keep independent publishers afloat” is ludicrous. The Nobel is a prize that rewards an author’s body of work, the work of a lifetime, it’s not a glib nod toward some unknown writer who toils in obscurity, meant to shower them with sales. It may often work that way; at least, it may be seen that way by Americans, who know little of foreign literature (though Mr. Kunzru, not being American, may have a better awareness of authors writing in languages other than English). But the fact that a novelist assumes that its purpose is to spur sales is, to say the least, surprising. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Mr. Kunzru’s work, and perhaps he felt that he deserved this prize, in order to increase his audience… This is an astonishing sense of entitlement from an author seeking more attention.
I discussed that and other anti-Dylan arguments in this article.
And read what an editor for a small press that publishes a number of Nobel prize winners has to say.