The news that Sweden’s Nobel Prize selection committee has awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to noted songwriter Bob Dylan is exciting news. The Nobel Prize has a long pedigree and the prize for literature has previously been awarded to such noted authors as William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, John Steinbeck, Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, Jean-Paul Sartre, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemmingway, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and many other familiar names, and in more recent years to Alice Munro, Patrick Modiano, and Svetlana Alexievich. The prize itself dates back to 1895 when industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, left most of the wealth in his will to establish the prizes the first of which were awarded in several categories, including Literature, in 1901.
The selection of Dylan is the first time that a songwriter has been so honoured and, if any validation was actually necessary, marks the elevation of songwriting into the category of serious literature. Literature contributes in many ways to our collective psyche, to our sense of cultural awareness and to our understanding of the society around us. Great literature documents changing public attitudes and mores and acts as a social commentator on our contemporary world. Great songwriting does no less and the contribution that Dylan has made to our collective sense of social awareness is significant. Although a “pre-boomer”, he has been the chronicler of the boomer generation—it’s questioning of the established order—and the changes that this generation has seen and experienced. According to the selection committee, Dylan was awarded the prize for “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
The award is not without controversy, just like Dylan himself. While there was some carping as to whether the genre deserved the accolade, Rolling Stone’s position was quite clear, with a headline proclaiming “Why Bob Dylan Deserves his Nobel Prize”. Among the reasons cited was his role in “inventing ways to make songs do what they hadn’t done before”. As of the date of writing, no-one knows what Dylan thinks of the award because he has refrained from commenting on it, and the selection committee has not heard directly from him. Clearly they didn’t consult him in advance as to whether he would accept the award.
The prestigious award to Dylan should be celebrated by all songwriters, and indeed by all who value the many varied forms of creativity that make our lives so rich. Music and songs have long been a medium of expression to express our joys and pains, our sorrows and our happiness; we have used this medium through the years to vent our frustrations and to celebrate our successes. Music and songwriting is a corner-stone in the edifice of the copyright industries; it’s a key part of the pantheon of creativity that is protected and encouraged by copyright.
There will be naysayers and critics of the Dylan award, but with no disrespect to the authors of fiction and non-fiction who have over the years made the Nobel Prize for Literature one of the most prestigious awards in the literary field, your turn will come again. Let’s give the songwriters their place in the sun this year. We are all better for it.
© Hugh Stephens 2016. All Rights Reserved.