I’m sure you have heard the news: Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. This is certainly going to make huge waves and create lots of discussion and debate. Few would question the greatness of Bob Dylan, whether in his music, his impact, or the lyrics of his songs (for which he has won the prize). But many would question the prize as a “category error”, as, for example, M. A. Orthofer put it. But to me, it’s good news. It’s good news, more than anything, for Nobel itself as an institution.
Nobel Prize in Literature is not a very diverse prize. It’s very Eurocentric, it’s very male dominated. And of course, it has largely ignored the best literature of our times, the American literature, to the point that many literary giants like Cormac McCarthy are said to have “no chance”. But its lack of diversity is even more pronounced in another aspect: the literary lack of diversity.
The Nobel Prize tends to go a very narrow kind of works, a work that is deemed “literary”, that it is not too “popular”, that it tends to please university snobs. It’s a kind of intellectual bigotry which exists within people, closing their minds and hearts to works of literature for arbitrary reasons.
Of course, there are many great authors who have gotten Nobel in the recent years. Alice Munro, Tomas Tranströmer, and Mario Vargas Llosa among them. However this myopia makes Nobel award a great number of boring and mediocre authors. J. M. G. Le Clézio, Herta Müller, Mo Yan, and Orhan Pamuk are really underwhelming. None of them are bad, per se, (although I do think Pamuk has written the worst novel of all time, The Museum of Innocence, but that was after his Nobel), but, all of them are just not great. All of them feel like the second hand copy of great authors who have won before — Mo Yan is the Chinese knock-off of Marquez (Personally not a fan of him, but his Nobel was well-deserved), Orhan Pamuk is a poor man’s Naguib Mahfouz, Herta Müller is like the 99th Nobel winner who examines living in an authoritarian country, but has no new insight to add.
(I still haven’t had the chance to read anything by Patrick Modiano. Let’s hope he’s not similar to what I am talking about here).
Winners like that show that the veneer of “literary” snobs is simply false. It’s not true that “genre” literature is cliched, recycled, and pandering, while “literary” literature is innovative, challenging, and rebellious, both of these “literatures” are basically created from cliches and tropes, and sometimes a rebellious and great author transforms these cliches to something new or great, whether it’s Carlos Fuentes or Vargas Llosa or it’s Philip K. Dick or Ursula K. Le Guin.
“Literary” literature gets to be superior only because its cliches are the favorite cliches of academia, and it panders to people who have the control of the “canon”. And when Nobel gets to agree with these rigid and intellectually myopic “standards”, whether they are arbitrary lines that separate categories (which would exclude Dylan), or an arbitrary selection of tropes, (which excludes “genre” authors), or arbitrary geographical lines, (which excludes American and non-European literature), Nobel ceases to be relevant.
As a lover of literature, I was excited when J. M. G. Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize, because I hadn’t heard of him, and thought that now I have a chance to get acquainted with a great author. But I was disappointed. And I continued to get disappointed. Finally, I decided that I won’t rely on Nobel as my guide, but on pre-Nobel buzz, about authors who would be mentioned every year as possible winners but don’t end up winning. I knew some of them already, Philip Roth and Haruki Murakami for example, and I knew them to be great. This way I discovered Ismail Kadare and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and I’m very happy with that.
But the selection of Bob Dylan, one year after Svetlana Alexievich, is a sign of hope. Alexievich was a rare choice in herself, she mixed fiction and non-fiction, so she didn’t look very much like your usual Nobel winners. Bob Dylan is even a better choice. He defies the tradition in many ways. He is American. He is the first person to be primarily a songwriter rather than a “literary” poet. (Rabindranath Tagore was also a songwriter, but not primarily). He is also very popular. Everyone considers him part of the pop culture, not elite culture.
Since both of them were selected after Sara Danuis became permanent secretary, dare we hope that this is a new approach?
We live in a world that such arbitrary lines are rapidly falling. It’s much harder for Nobel to keep up with times if it wants to remain relevant. Lyrics have always been a part of literature. As Danuis herself noted, Homer and Sappho wrote for music. And this tradition has continued to this day. Lyricists are poets. But the genres are going to be challenged even further. Are Visual Novels literature? Interactive novels? And now every author can have their fanbase, it’s very hard to distinguish “popular” and “elite” literature. The future is coming, and it’s ending the fad of “literary” fiction.
Now that we have come so far, my wish is that Nobel awards an author who is indisputably a science fiction or fantasy writer, not this fake “magical realism”, a crap term which is used by snobs who can’t imagine themselves enjoying fantasy. I want a “genre” author to win. Someone whose past wins are Hugo and Nebula, not Pulitzer and Man Booker. Ursuala K. Guin maybe? She’d be awesome.
Anyway, a win for Bob Dylan is a step in the right direction.
Image credit: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by Elsa Dorfman (1975), Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, via Wikipedia