The 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to Bob Dylan. This marks the first time an American has won the prestigious prize since novelist Toni Morrison was honoured in 1993. More notably, Dylan is the first winner to receive the award not as a poet or prose writer, but as a lyricist. The Swedish Academy explained the decision to honour Dylan by saying he has “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
“If you look far back, 5,000 years, you discover Homer and Sappho,” says Sara Danils, Secretary of the Swedish Academy. “They wrote poetic texts which were meant to be performed, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it.”
This statement was presumably prepared to stymy the ire that would inevitably rise from staunch traditionalists in the literature world who might object to this accolade being presented to a rock star. There’s no refuting that Dylan has been hugely influential as a performer, but assigning literary value (the highest literary value in the world, some might say) to his work is curious.
Was this a ploy on the part of the committee to make the Nobel feel relevant, even cool? Perhaps. But if that were the case, why did the Academy select a candidate whose most iconic work took place in the 1960s, and who has already received a panoply of awards, over a career that spans half a century.
Stretching the limits of the award criteria, only to then land on such an obvious choice, feels like a huge missed opportunity. If you really wanted to buck expectations and start conversations around what constitutes literature, then there are other potential candidates.
What about Warsan Shire? The Somali poet’s work might have been recognised by the literary establishment, but to many she is best known as the co-writer of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Then there’s Kate Tempest, the South Londoner whose patois-infused poetry and prose retell ancient myths through the lens of post-recession Britain.
Bob Dylan is hardly a figure whose legacy needed cementing. And this is the Nobel Prize, not a lifetime achievement award. So please, Swedish Academy; next year, if you want to shock or inspire us, maybe dig a little deeper. Use your imagination. Because as a wise man once said; the times, they are a-changin’.