Tangled up in Bob
UAlberta reaction to Dylan’s Nobel underscores the fluid and hotly contested nature of literary boundaries.
By GEOFF McMASTER
Awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to a songwriter was bound to stir up controversy.
Since 1901, the award has tended to recognize serious authors expounding on hefty social, political and philosophical problems while creating intricately woven masterworks of high art, the fruits of their labour painstakingly crafted with pen or keyboard and intended to be read on the page.
Never has a Nobel artist been anointed for howling into a microphone. At least not until last week, when Bob Dylan, to the amazement of many, was given the world’s greatest literary honour for some of the most poetic howling ever heard.
Some would argue this stretches the definition of literature too far, undermining the Nobel’s intended purpose. The Scottish writer Irvine Welsh (best known for Trainspotting) and American writer Gary Shteyngart were among the literary figures who immediately tweeted their dissension.
So what do literary experts at the University of Alberta have to say about Dylan’s Nobel? The reaction is mixed.
Let’s start with creative writing instructor Thomas Wharton. In response to Leonard Cohen’s comment that awarding Dylan the prize was like “pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain,” Wharton tweeted, “Isn't it more like pinning a medal on Everest for being the longest river?
“Dylan is an undeniably major figure in popular music,” he added, “and I'm sure song lyrics can be literature, too, but to me Dylan is more like a talented preacher than a great writer of the calibre of (Scandinavian poet and 2011 Nobel winner) Tomas Transtromer or (Canadian short story writer and 2013 Nobel winner) Alice Munro.
“You could argue that what makes Dylan literary is that he's a truly creative plagiarist, like Shakespeare. It's just my opinion, but Dylan’s prize seems more like an award for being an icon than for important writing, and even Cohen's quote seems to suggest that.”
Brad Bucknell, a specialist in music and literature and himself a singer/songwriter, has problems with the very idea of singling out any one author. He said the Nobel is clearly elitist, favouring far too many white men over its history.
Dylan is yet another white male when there are any number of deserving writers of colour up for consideration—most notably perhaps the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o—whom many thought had a good shot at the prize this year.
But Bucknell suspects Dylan’s award might be a political intervention of sorts, a bright light meant to counter the destructive political discourse now dominating American culture. The Nobel committee might want to remind America of its foundational myth as a great force for freedom, captured in such songs as “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”
“It's an intervention upon the absurd,” said Bucknell, “the current presidential election where it seems that at least one candidate—and millions of Americans—will willingly go down any road that paranoia and fear will take them.
“And maybe the Nobel committee has a soft spot for a strange period where even something like the songs of Bob Dylan could not quite be encompassed by capitalism in the way everything seems to be today, especially music.”
Postcolonial literature expert Stephen Slemon admits that Dylan may not be his first choice—that would be the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris—but he nonetheless celebrates Dylan’s prize, partly because it reminds us all that literature was born in a bardic tradition of recitation and song and that definitions of literature do, and must, always evolve.
“The Nobel Prize needs greater diversity, especially in gender and race, but diversity comes in multiple forms, and genre is one of them,” he said.
The great poet T.S. Eliot once remarked that artists build upon tradition of necessity, said Slemon. “They innovate, they reinvent, they reanimate, but behind their work is centuries of development. Our literary giants necessarily stand on the shoulders of giants who have come before. So it is with Dylan. He's at heart a balladeer, a troubadour whose artistry turns upon tradition.
“All great writers, and all good readers, know that there has always been a music to the words, if you listen—even when those words seem only just to sit there, on the flat printed page.”
And though it may be true that all language inheres a musical quality, the technological enhancements of recorded music give it, in one sense, an unfair advantage over words on a printed page, argued U of A professor of popular music and media studies Brian Fauteux.
“There are significant differences between recorded song and literature that have me questioning why the committee would award Dylan the prize,” he said.
“I do believe songwriting can be considered a new form of poetic expression, and although Dylan is an exceptional songwriter who is both influenced by and has influenced literature, I think it’s more valuable to consider the full spectrum of why Dylan’s music resonates with listeners on the level that it does—and this includes music, sound, atmosphere, technology and medium.
“It’s impossible to separate the poetic aspects of Dylan’s lyrics from the musical aspects of his songs. His words are always shaped by the atmosphere that the music communicates, the instrumentalists and performers he records with, the medium by which it reaches listeners and the technologies used to record, distribute and listen to music.”
The final word, however, should probably go to Stephen Scobie, the now retired Dylan scholar who taught at the U of A during the ’70s and wrote the 1991 biography, Alias Bob Dylan.
“As a writer myself, both poet and critic, I have always cherished Dylan’s words and been both thrilled and nourished by them,” said Scobie. “They live in my head, always.
“I love the street-smart, razor-sharp rhymes of lines like ‘God said to Abraham, kill me a son.’ I stand in awe at the sublime imagery of ‘The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face’ (a line which any poet in history would gladly have died for).
“Yet for all the flashing brilliance of Dylan’s plays with identity, there is also a deep sense of tradition, which finds its home in the music and the voice, a tradition that stretches from folk song to torch song, from Woody Guthrie to Frank Sinatra.
“When they all come together, as in 'Blind Willie McTell,' the result is genius—pure, Nobel-worthy genius.”
What Dylan himself has to say about his prize is anyone’s guess. He has yet to answer the call from Stockholm.