Last night, during a bout of insomnia, I began writing a piece for Noise That Thinks about Arcade Fire’s first album. It was a tentative, disorganized beginning- 750 words and I’m still not sure if it makes any sense, linear or otherwise. Writing at Noise comes with the knowledge that I am currently suffering not only from an inability to sleep, but an inability to write. I’ve been troubled by writer’s block for most of the year, bogged down in anxiety and other frustrations beyond my control and desperately trying to gain some semblance of normality in the midst of my self-destructive tendencies. I write about music not only because it remains my one true love, but because it’s sometimes the only writing I am able to do. It’s easy for me to ponder about music and what it means to me. It’s harder to take the narrative in my head and put it on paper. I was always better as an essayist and dialogue writer than I was at story telling and exposition.
So I put away my laptop and had a fitful night of semi-sleep, only to wake up to the news that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It made perfect sense to me. Dylan has been an influence to me in countless ways, both as a writer and as human being. Whether it’s listening incessantly to classics like Bringing It All Back Home or Blood on the Tracks, dissecting lyrics as fans are wont to do, or simply reveling in the moments of complete insanity later Dylan records have brought ( hello, Christmas in the Heart. I do question your existence), I have lived in a world where Dylan has influenced nearly everyone I know.
Is music literature, though? I’m of the mindset that it is. Poetry is of course literature, and undervalued as such. Using language to convey emotions and thoughts in concise ways, sometimes abstract, sometimes pithy, sometimes literal. I can quote witty couplets and children’s absurdities, and I cry at the poems written about love and memory. Dylan absolutely writes poetry. He just happens to sing it with a guitar in hand instead of standing at a daïs reciting it. He sometimes has the immediacy of a slam poet, and the gravity of an elder statesman being profound on the page. He has written about the joy of love, the sadness of love, the idiocy of love. There are critiques of politics, the occasional consideration of history, and Quinn the Mighty Eskimo. He has evoked humour, anger, and tragedy in his words. He has moved generations and inspired careers. Of course he writes literature. That’s what literature is about- the word as art, moving the listener into places of action that may be personal or public. Literature can change the world, but it usually just changes a person.
Are there other worthy writers? Absolutely. The issue with the Nobel Prize is that they give out one per year. Many a treasured writer will never win one. The Prize has overlooked women writers like Virginia Woolf in favour of great men of letters more often than not, but still men like James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Chinua Achebe, and Primo Levi were never awarded the prize. When one looks at the list of winners of time, people have won not just for novels, memoirs, essay, and poetry, but for playwriting, screenwriting, philosophy, and criticism. If it’s about need or bring eyes to new works, than why do popular writers get the chance. Everyone has read Steinbeck at some point, and it’s not like Yeats, Eliot, and Shaw really needed the esteem. Pearl S. Buck’s novels were best sellers around the world. Winston Churchill won for literature- while he is an incredible writer of history, it’s not what we know him for nor celebrate him for and with good reason. If the prize is truly about celebrating the best of literature, than we cannot limit what one considers literature. Literature hangs on words. If words are the only thing that matter and not the presentation of those words, than why does songwriting not get a consideration? It’s still writing and presenting language for an audience. If famous writers who made money can win, why not a songwriter like Dylan? Is the narrowness of some who view literature as a certain type of language ( the written word, presented in certain forms approved by those who refuse to acknowledge that writing is more than tomes of paper) going to be the undoing of literature as art? Does Eugene O’Neill still deserve his Nobel? Does Bertrand Russell? Who decides ultimately what makes up what literature is and what is merely “entertainment”? Is literature not allowed to be entertaining? I’m throughly entertained by Orhan Pamuk’s books while being bored by Boris Pasternak. They both won a prize. I can accept Dylan’s win as correct while still waiting for Paulo Coelho to win and not think that Coelho is suffering in any way.
Maybe it’s actually never going to matter. The fact is many winners of the Nobel Prize still remain unread by the masses. Most people don’t want to saddle themselves with a meta novel about an Ottoman Empire miniaturist. It’s their loss. The drop in reading for pleasure is a valid concern. But if words are the thing that matter, why does songwriting get the shaft? It’s an ancient art form, older than novel-writing. It’s the most popular form of expressive language in the world. More people attempt songwriting than novels under the impression that writing a three-minute pop song is easier than writing a four hundred page novel. It’s not comparable. Each writer has their own process. Bob Dylan has in fact written one very terrible book of prose poetry and one incredible volume of memoirs. He’s has written in that very narrow definition of literature. But it’s “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Master of War” that has earned recognition, and the world would be poorer without these works. Dylan is a master wordsmith. His muse is the same as others, it’s just how he delivers her to us that is different.
I believe Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize, and he deserves congratulations. And for future writers, no matter what medium you write in, expanding and accepting what we constitute as literature can only be a good thing. Because it’s the words that matter.