Dylan’s Nobel: What Happens When Literature Lets Go of Its Clique

Dylan’s Nobel means that literature is questioning its own traditional definitions. And that’s great news.

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When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I was delighted. Not only as a Dylan fan, but also as a student of English literature. (Photo: <b>The Quint</b>/Liju Joseph)

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I was delighted. Not only as a Dylan fan but also as a student of English literature. Simply because the award heralds the moment when ‘literature’ finally questions its own traditional definitions. To recognise a world filled with songs, spoken word poems and non-English oral histories.

I am not writing this to defend Dylan’s Nobel Prize on the merit of his songs. Though anyone who has ever heard Like a Rolling Stone will find it difficult to deny its poetic class comparable to modernist poets like Ezra Pound and TS Eliot. Instead, I would argue that the Nobel Committee’s decision means that ‘literature’ is finally letting go of its inverted quotes status. And that’s great news.

‘Literature is Everything’: Who Decides What Literature Is?

“What is literature?”

I was a wide-eyed first-year student attending my first class of Bachelors in English Literature. I replied instantly, “Austen, Shakespeare and Tagore..?” My teacher gave me an all-knowing smile and said nothing. On the last day of my course, I understood why.

At the end of three years, not only had I read Shakespeare, I had also studied a variety of things which I never thought of as literature. Ghashiram Kotwal in translation, James Bond novels, the Bible and the Ramayana, Derek Walcott’s poems from the Caribbean and Dario Fo’s Italian anarchist plays. Why?
A new version of the Ramayana<i> </i>could change the way we view the epic narrative. (Photo: iStock)
A new version of the Ramayana could change the way we view the epic narrative. (Photo: iStock)

Because literature is everything. Graphic novels like Persepolis, film soundtracks, rap songs, the work of Instagram poets like Lang Leav and religious texts like the Mahabharata. Every day, people from all over the world are redefining the boundaries of what constitutes literature.

So, why are we questioning the status of Bob Dylan’s songs as literature?

Tagore’s Songs, Alexievich’s Journalism and Beckett’s Plays

The mandate of the Swedish Academy given by Alfred Nobel was to seek out “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. And judging from previous award winners, the Academy has been consistently pushing the boundaries of literature.



 Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian investigative journalist and non-fiction prose writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. (Photo: <a href="https://www.nobelprize.org/">nobelprize.org</a>)
Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian investigative journalist and non-fiction prose writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. (Photo: nobelprize.org)
In 2015, Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian investigative journalist and non-fiction prose writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Rabindranath Tagore, the only Indian to have been awarded the Prize, won it for his songs, notably the collection Gitanjali. Absurdist Irish playwright Samuel Beckett has won the Nobel, as has Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian poet who heavily relies on oral history.

This is not to defend the Nobel’s propensity to avoid non-white artists who are not writing in English. But slowly and steadily, the most prestigious award in literature is taking risks. And Bob Dylan is the latest, though admittedly the biggest, risk they have taken.

William Shakespeare Was Popular Too, So What is High Art?

Shakespeare is now the the epitome of literary canon. But at the time he was writing his plays, he was considered to be an uncultured and bawdy playwright  (Photo: iStock)
Shakespeare is now the the epitome of literary canon. But at the time he was writing his plays, he was considered to be an uncultured and bawdy playwright (Photo: iStock)

For many people, the Nobel Prize awarded to Dylan is a betrayal because they believe he is too ‘popular’ and well-known to win the award. But Dylan’s Nobel is important precisely because it smashes the distinction between high art and popular culture. Just because something is popular, doesn’t mean it is not worthy of being called literature.

If we think the Nobel in Literature should be given to someone 'not popular', what do we say about William Shakespeare? Shakespeare is now the the epitome of literary canon. But at the time he was writing his plays, he was considered to be an uncultured and bawdy playwright who was only popular among the masses.

As much as we would like it to be, literature is not a permanent category. What is popular now is bound to become literary canon in centuries to come.

Does the Postcolonial Speak? Where is Faiz’s Nobel?

Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a revolutionary Pakistani poet and one of the most respected voices in Urdu literature. (Facebook/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/faiz777/">Faiz Ahmed Faiz</a>)
Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a revolutionary Pakistani poet and one of the most respected voices in Urdu literature. (Facebook/Faiz Ahmed Faiz)

Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a revolutionary Pakistani poet and one of the most respected voices in Urdu literature. Yet, a Nobel Prize eluded him. One possible reason could be that he was a postcolonial voice, non-white and non-English speaking. Another reason could be that he similar to Dylan; he was seen as a popular poet. Faiz’s poetry has been widely appropriated and frequently used as protest songs and in films. But he hasn’t received canonical recognition yet.

In this context, Dylan’s Nobel Prize paves the way for recognition of poets, playwrights and writers who are ‘popular’ or exist outside the English-speaking and Euro-centric world.

Bob Dylan’s songs then, have always been worth of literary merit. Maybe it is time we change our definition of literature?

(The story is being republished from The Quint’s archives since Bob Dylan has finally agreed to accept his Nobel Prize, including his diploma and medal, in Stockholm, Sweden. The story was originally published on 14 October 2016)

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