Saturday, October 15, 2016

Tangled Up

Bob Dylan has won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature.

 When I saw this I immediately recalled a moment in my senior year of college--1967/8--when I railed to a lit professor that the literature of our times was being written by Dylan, the Beatles etc. in the form of a few minutes of song.

 It wasn't an original idea. I recall reading an interview with Donovan who referred to "Eleanor Rigby" as a three minute novel.

 But as important as Dylan's songs have been to me and to our times, this news didn't arrive as a vindication. I'm actually disappointed.

The truth is Bob Dylan doesn't need any more awards. I'm pretty sure he'd tell you that himself.  He's a pop star, and has been recognized for his contribution to American culture many times, including at the White House.

 But there are a lot of writers who aren't pop stars who have only a few shots at recognition. Yes, they can get medals from their nation for cultural contributions. But this is the big international prize for their art.

I think of Ursula LeGuin who is 87. She is only one of several I can think of who deserve this prize, which is given only to the living.

Giving Dylan this prize does nothing but muddy the waters. Does this make Sting and James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen eligible? I guess so. But why? They don't need it. The world doesn't need it.

 Giving this prize to, say, Kim Stanley Robinson on the other hand could actually change the world. It would recognize a form of literature and give him a platform for expressing ideas and focusing a dialogue the world needs to survive.

 Hey, even a National Book Award or a Pulitzer would go a long way. But writers in the sci-fi ghetto don't get those awards, despite their contributions to literature and literary culture, not to mention the world. They have a better shot at the Nobel.

 So it's another occasion to celebrate Dylan's work (though eventually somebody is going to point out that his borrowings remain controversial) and that's fine. But we know about Dylan's work. We've been swimming in it for more than fifty years.  Is this more of an award for us?

Sure, I recognize that songs like "The Times They Are A Changin" and "Tangled Up in Blue" and a few dozen more have had more lasting and layered effects on me, including deep visceral effects, and may even say more about life in these times than almost any novel or poem.  But their power is in their nature as songs.

Without the music, Dylan might be--as Allen Ginsberg came to believe--a good minor poet.  That's not faint praise.  There aren't that many good minor poets. But that's not really relevant.  This is a different form.  Dylan would probably tell you that.  (And come to that, where is Allen Ginsberg's prize?)

 This prize is for literature, and the work of literature gets no greater recognition. Think of all that Margaret Atwood (for one) has written and done, and the example she sets for a literary culture. Or Gary Snyder (age 86.)  Or is that over now? That's not good.

It's possible to argue that songs of the kind that Dylan wrote aren't being written or at least heard as much anymore because popular music has changed. But that's a different argument. The fact is that the popular music forms are not threatened. They still bring in big bucks. Literary culture around the world is endangered. And this prize does nothing to support it.