Ever since the announcement of the prize, a lot of words have been shed on “literary merit”, without people realising that it has little to do with the Nobel Committee and its decisions. The committee honours the words in a private citizen’s will about how he intended to divest his privately earned fortune. The accountability that we, in this great era of democracy, have thrust upon the Nobel Prize is our own doing and our own problem. The prize never sought out to be the pinnacle of literary recognition; it was meant to award “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”–a vague enough diktat worthy of Dylan. It is perhaps not surprising then that it has overlooked widely regarded literary masters such as Tolstoy, Proust or Joyce, and awarded non-literary writers such as Russell, Bergson and Churchill.
Bishan Samaddar is an editor at Seagull Books, a small publishing company that has published, in English, a number of Nobel prize winners.
In 2016, it gave the prize to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. This statement is unimpeachable. You cannot fault the Nobel Committee for staying true to what it believes is its prerogative. When people say that “song” is not literature, one might remember that this is not the first time that a song-writer has been so recognised. It happened also in 1913. It’s fine to say that Rabindranath Tagore wrote all kinds of things, but his lasting legacy is Rabindrasangeet. Words sung are much older than words written down. The printed word, by which we identify literature today, is a comparatively recent phenomenon. There is a special value to words that are heard, and to say that it doesn’t form literature is not simply to limit its scope but actually to be untrue to it.
Yes, there seems to be a literary establishment that has come to assume that literature has been defined once and for all as prose and poetry, and, perhaps, drama. Yet the earliest literature was song and performance poetry.
Samaddar’s take is a lot more cogent than that of some novelist who thinks the prize is meant as a marketing tool.