But If Bob Dylan Is Popular, How Can He Be Good?
I read with horror and confusion last week that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for, you guessed it, Literature.
That’s right- this is a man who wrote songs, and sang them while playing guitar. Is that literature!? I don’t think so. My cousin plays guitar and he is no good at all, he just sings about his girlfriend or stuff that happened to him or what he longs for deep in his heart. That’s not literature. Literature is the sort of thing that exists in books, the sort of books you can read on the train with the cover clearly facing the other passengers, the sort of books that have not been written by people like Bob Dylan.
What sort of world are we living in if Bob Dylan can win a prize for literature? Some people have said that song lyrics should qualify as literature, but I can’t see how that could possibly be the case. Literature is made of words, but songs are made of noises.
If we let our concept of literature be broad enough to include words that you sing (maybe even one day we will include any sort of words…!) soon we will not know which words are the good ones. Eventually we would have to decide for ourselves what is good, and that is not something I am prepared to do, nor should I be expected to do it. Just imagine if I enthused about some new poem or book to all my friends, but then I discovered it actually wasn’t very good… People would think that I was not very good.
But I am good. That’s the one thing I know about myself for sure.
Actually, it’s not even about how good the lyrics are. It doesn’t matter how good they are; what matters is how we define the genre of literature, and what fits into that definition and what doesn’t, and especially what I think about that. Perhaps the Nobel committee has been poisoned by a prolonged exposure to low art, like television, comic books, or poetry that rhymes? Perhaps they deluded themselves into thinking they were supposed to assess quality?
Perhaps they forgot that Bob Dylan is popular?
That might even be the most troubling part of all this: Bob Dylan is a popular artist, what they sometimes call a “pop” artist. I have spent most of my life deliberately avoiding any type of popular culture without attempting to understand or engage with it. This has kept me pure, like a good woman. Now, apparently, I am supposed to accept the idea that a work of art can be both popular and good? This is the sort of thing that you would expect to hear from a regular woman.
Don’t think I have taken this lightly or that I am being flippant about this important award. When the world tells me I am supposed to like something, normally I don’t even hesitate, I’ll just line up and buy my copy of Life of Pi like everybody else. But the problem here is that I have spent many years dismissing Bob Dylan as something inherently bad (or mediocre, when I was feeling generous). I have always made sure to reject his work out of hand because of its association with things that are definitely not literature, like desolation. I used to be able to say, ‘well he hasn’t won any literary prizes, has he? Ha ha ha.’ So what would happen to my credibility if I changed my mind now? That would be ridiculous. It would be much better if I just doubled down on all the haughty ignorance and affected disdain I have so heavily invested in.
I mean, what next? Soon the world will be full of talented people working diligently at their craft for decades, producing an extensive body of work full of arresting imagery that deeply explores the many facets of the human condition. And where would that leave me? I shudder to think.