Known for his echoing lyrics that chronicled social issues ranging from civil rights to war, Bob Dylan made history and sparked controversy by winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan is widely regarded as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century and has recently demonstrated his popularity with his win.
Historically, the Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to those viewed as authors rather than artists. In many people’s eyes, Dylan’s achievement has set a precedent that singers are just as eligible for the prize as those who write novels or other works. Popular author Jodi Picoult called out the double standard on Twitter: “I’m happy for Bob Dylan, #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?”
Similarly, critics such as Tim Stanley of The Telegraph have compared Dylan’s win to Henry Kissinger, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his efforts to end the Vietnam War—a win often called “the most controversial to date.” Stanley has bashed Dylan’s lyric writing skills, stating that although he is a “great” artist, “his body of work falls far short of that produced by past winners Yeats, Gide, O’Neill, Solzhenitsyn, etc.”
Dylan angered people when he did not respond to the honor immediately and—according to the New York Times— chose to perform a concert in Las Vegas rather than attend a customary news conference. Reporters had a hard time getting him to comment on the prize in the following weeks; it was not until almost three weeks after the award was announcedthat the Swedish Academy posted that Dylan had returned its calls, would accept the award, and was honored by it. As a part of his response, Dylan said in an interview given to the Telegraph, “The news about the Nobel Prize left me speechless. I appreciate the honor so much.” This was the only reason he provided regarding why he had sustained an almost three-week long silence regarding his win.
On the other hand, many people argue that Dylan is a poet, and thus deserves the award as much as anyone else. The Swedish Academy states that they gave Dylan the award “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
The issue then comes down to two questions: Can music be poetry, and what is the obligation for someone who receives a Nobel Prize? Interestingly, this is not the first time Dylan’s music has been treated as poetry. In an article from the New York Times, they brought up the point that his song “Desolation Row” appeared in The Oxford Book of American Poetry, and Cambridge University published “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan,” an extensive commentary on Dylan’s music. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to turn poems into songs, so it is logical that some songs are considered poetry.
Based on past winners, Dylan may not have an obligation to talk about the award. Ben Sisario of the New York Times stated that despite a speech, neither Martin Luther King Jr. nor T.S. Eliot talked much about their own Nobel Prizes. People expected Dylan to talk about the award because of the controversy surrounding it as well as the fact that he is much more of a public figure than many who receive the prize.
No matter what people think about the win, it is clear that Dylan made history this year and opened the door for musicians to win this prize in the future.