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Talkin’ Nobel Prize Blues: Professors Weigh In On Dylan’s New Honor


Photo credit: Xavier Badosa

Written by: Zachary D. ElickOctober 26, 2016

When it was announced this month that legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan would be the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, many in the literary world were not happy with the decision.

Most critics balked that the award should instead be given to a novelist or a poet. American novelist Gary Shteyngart made the following sarcastic tweet on the day of the announcement: “I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard.”

Dylan’s Nobel Prize was awarded to him “for having created new poetic expression within the great American song tradition,” according to a press release from the Swedish Academy.

Members of the Swedish Academy select the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature every year.

Curtis Crisler, IPFW associate professor of English, said he has mixed feelings about the decision, seeing it as possibly leading to the lines between literature and songwriting becoming “muddier.”

“For the most part, literature is something you are writing down that someone can take with them to read somewhere … you are writing a book, you are writing poem, you are writing a short story or a novel — that type of thing,” Crisler said. “And I think music is just a different avenue, although it is telling a story.”

Crisler, who has written several books of poetry, said he enjoys Dylan’s music and believes his songs do have literary value. Yet, since Dylan’s songs rely on music for their ultimate effect, they should not be labeled as poetry, he said.

Another problem with awarding Dylan a prize in literature instead of songwriting, according to Crisler, is that it may disenfranchise other great songwriters who do not have Dylan’s clout among the literary community.

“What happens next year or 10 years down the line? Are we going to have Prince (or) James Brown … Michael Jackson? Whoever those people are who are very big in what they did, [in] how they spoke to people,” Crisler said. “If they are saying this about Dylan, I can say the same about James Brown.”

Michael Stapleton, IPFW professor of English, said he is pleased that members of the Swedish Academy chose to honor Dylan this year. He compared Dylan to the lyrical poets and bards popular from the Middle Ages to the Elizabethan age.

“Think of the troubadours in the 12th century. They not only wrote, but they wrote music for their poems and had other people speak them,” Stapleton said. “So would that mean that if Marcabru, the troubadour, was up for a Nobel Prize he wouldn’t get one? Why shouldn’t he?”

Stapleton is not worried that Dylan’s prize will have a dramatic impact on how the Academy picks its laureates in the future.

“I imagine they’ll go back to giving to all the Salman Rushdie-types and Zadie Smiths and all that kind of stuff, (but) I think [selecting Dylan] was nice. I think this was a good thing for them to do,” he said.

Stapleton’s personal favorite Dylan song is “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” from the 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde.”

“I could analyze the symbolism (in that song) endlessly,” Stapleton said. “‘I saw you making love to your new boyfriend / I’ve never seen him before / I saw you making love to him because you forgot to close the garage door’ — I mean come on, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

As of Oct. 24, Dylan has yet to return any correspondence sent to him by the Swedish Academy about his Nobel Prize. Last week, a member of the Academy called Dylan’s lack of a response “impolite” and “arrogant” on a Swedish television show.