It’s time, after 115 years, to retire the Nobel Prize. This year’s award in literature proves it.
Yes, the Swedish Academy gives out Nobels in a bunch of fields, including the hard sciences and the dismal one, economics (this year given for pioneering work on—sound the trumpets!—contracts). The awards in physics and chemistry are generally given for work known by and comprehensible to maybe half a dozen people around the globe. Aside from specialists, they elicit a gigantic yawn from everyone else. There’s the Nobel Peace Prize, which is generally reserved for warmongers shaking hands. Henry Kissinger, the world’s oldest unindicted war criminal, received one. So did Barack Obama, a few months into his presidential term of office. Who’d have thought he’d wind up the first American president to pass his entire presidency at war without letup, and on half a dozen fronts?
If the science prizes elicit a yawn, maybe the peace prize rates a sigh. But the only award most people pay any attention to is the one in literature. The Nobel Prize in Literature has become such an annual circus that those considered likely candidates are handicapped by Ladbrooke’s. For example, a hot tip near the time of this year’s award announcement reduced the odds on Don DeLillo from 66:1 to 14:1.
The award, as everyone now knows, went to Bob Dylan.
It isn’t as if the Nobel Prize Committee hasn’t been messing up for some time; in fact, from the very beginning. The first winner for literature was that master story-teller, Sully-Prudhomme. Surely you’ve read his works? His competition only included Leo Tolstoy: you know, the guy who wrote War and Peace. Over the years, the winners have included such household names as Verner von Heidensten, Karl Anton Gjellerup, and Henrik Pontoppidan. Tolstoy, who lived into the tenth year of the award, never won.
Of course, you can’t always get it wrong in over a hundred years, even if you just open the phone book at random. Writers of eminence have won the award, although the taste of the Swedish Academy runs decidedly to the middle-brow, with a heavy tilt toward Scandinavian masters. But even a partial list of omissions includes, besides Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, Paul Valery, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Nikos Kazantzakis, Jorge Luis Borges. This doesn’t count non-Western writers, whom the Academy only began to recognize recently. And even when it picks a good writer, it typically ignores a better one. Wislawa Szymborska, a worthy poet, won the prize for Poland, while a truly great Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert, was ignored. Odysseus Elytis received the award for Greece, but Yannis Ritsos, a world figure, did not. And so on.
It’s all been a harmless parlor game to this point, or, if you attend to the politics behind each award, a nasty dogfight. If the choice is bizarre, as in the recent cases of the completely unreadable Elfride Jelinek or the court jester Dario Fo, you can simply shrug. But the Dylan case is simply a willful assault on literature. Aside from a memoir, Dylan is not a writer at all, just a balladeer. He got his award for song lyrics and maybe the way he sung them, which would be sort of like giving Robert Frost the Nobel Prize (he didn’t win it either) not for his poems but for the way he read them.
Full disclosure: I’ve never liked Bob Dylan as a singer. His voice, even when young, was raspy and nasal. Even if you thought, though, that he was a vocal master, the point is what he was singing rather than simply the way he sang it. And, on the page, his lyrics, considered as literature, are of surpassing banality. Here’s a sample:
In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal, that the courts are on the level
(“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”)
“Courtroom of honor” is a meaningless mouthful, “gavel” and “level” are weak rhymes, and the sudden turn from the high-toned to the colloquial (“all’s equal,” “on the level”) falls utterly flat. Nor do we ever find out much about the song’s subject, Hattie Carroll, except that her killer got off lightly. But, worse yet:
While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
(“Bringing It All Back Home”)
Really, how lame, how subliterate can you get? That preachers preach is a simple-minded tautology; likewise, that teachers teach. “Preach of evil fates” is subgrammatical, too; you preach “about” or “on the subject of,” not “of” something. “Evil fates” is likewise painfully awkward and banal, and I have never heard that teachers “teach that knowledge waits” (which knowledge? Where? Why?). The sense of the sentence, without further reference, is nonsense; but worse still “awaits.” “Words” are not disillusioned, only the speakers of them; disillusioned speech can hardly suggest “bullets”; and “bullets,” needless to say, do not “bark.” Okay, Jack, you’ll say, but these are metaphors. The trouble is that they’re terrible ones, even by the standards of pop lyrics; they take you nowhere and tell you nothing.
Let’s try once more, this time from “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”):
I didn’t say you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right.
No, I’m not going to say that “unkind” should be “unkindly,” or that “kinda wasted” should have been “simply wasted”; these lines are obviously meant to be demotic. Shakespeare did the same thing. But this isn’t Bottom the Weaver, where the colloquial is made into delightful buffoonery and contrasted with the styles of elevated speech. This is just cliché wrapped in banality, however soulfully projected. Literature, it ain’t.
Dylan has had his learned defenders before, notably Christopher Ricks, who devoted a book to proving him a poet on a par with Keats or Yeats. The New York Times editorialized that Dylan’s selection was “a blessed relief” (from what?), and that his work “achieves greatness in its breadth and beauty.” And Joyce Carol Oates, the perennially disappointed Nobel candidate, calls the choice of Dylan “inspired,” adding only her opinion that the Beatles may have been even more deserving. But no one’s likely to top the accolade of Sara Danius, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, who in announcing the award, likened Dylan to Homer and Sappho. Well, who knew?
Asked by a reporter whether she thought Dylan really deserved a Nobel, Ms. Danius snapped, “Of course he does. He just got it.”
That remark may not get a prize. But it sure takes the cake.
Actually, the award to Dylan can be better understood as another poke in the eye for Uncle Sam. The last American to win the literature prize was Toni Morrison in 1993, and members of the Academy have openly scoffed at the value of contemporary American writing. You may or may not think that DeLillo or Oates or Philip Roth are significant authors, but they have all accumulated a serious body of work. At the least, they do not write subliterate sentences.
Two important poets died within a day of each other this past summer, Geoffrey Hill and Yves Bonnefoy. Neither got within a mile of the Nobel Prize; they were far too distinguished for that, and their reputations are the more secure for it. But that persons of literary standing have jumped on the Dylan bandwagon shows that the joke has gone too far. Literature at the highest level is one of the most challenging forms of human thought. To travesty it mocks the very idea of culture. Given a world already drowning in kitsch, we can ill afford to erase the distinction between good and bad altogether.
I’ve got nothing against balladeers, and it is a truism that much great art is based in popular tradition. Villon sang for his supper too. But there is no such thing as literature without standards of value, and to compare the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey to the songwriter of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “TheTimes They Are A-Changin’” . . . well, the rest really is silence.
One point more. Prizes can be more or less harmless in their place. But no prize ever added a syllable of value to a single sentence ever written, and when the award sets itself up above the work, it’s time to close shop.