Damn! Bob Dylan wins Nobel Literature prize

Damn! Bob Dylan wins Nobel Literature prize


norman lebrecht

October 13, 2016

They couldn’t find a writer so a musician was the next-best thing? Or was the committee just looking to big itself up with a blaze of celebrity? For lyrics written half a century ago and known the world over?

And if literary merit of lyrics had anything to do with it, shouldn’t Leonard Cohen take precedence?

Much as we love Bob Dylan, this gives no cause for cheer.

bob dylan

Don Hunstein/Lebrecht Music&Arts


  • Ljubisa says:

    Shame, shame, shame…

  • MWnyc says:

    I’m not going to join the tut-tutting (though I’m not a Dylan fan). But I agree with Norman that Leonard Cohen would be a better candidate.

    Problem is, a Canadian (Alice Munro) won just three years ago, and the Nobel jury doesn’t like to repeat countries so soon. Alas, Cohen probably won’t live much longer (see this excellent profile in this week’s New Yorker), and I think it’ll be a while before the Nobel jury decides to award another songwriter.

  • ElizaX says:

    This give-Dylan-the-Nobel-Prize nonsense has been going on for years. I once attended (more or less against my will – it was an institutional obligation) a lecture given by some smirking university teacher on this subject. Lots of rubbish about Dylan’s pioneering use of the vernacular and his rich “Biblical” imagery and his inventive rhymes…..and so on. No-one was convinced.

    Dylan is obviously an excellent song lyricist, but only a complete imbecile could put his lyrics on the same level as the work of a great novelist or a great poet. Divorced from the music, most of his “songs” are clumsy, sloppy and generally lacking the precision and formal control you expect from the best writers. They read as if they were knocked out in a hotel room, while waiting for the bath to fill. Wedded to the music, and to Dylan’s unique delivery, they usually work very well, but that is a very different matter. They may well be the best that pop has to offer and you could certainly make a case that they had a decisive impact on the standard of popular music writing, but compared to Steinbeck or Saul Bellow or Alice Munro or V S Naipaul………?

    It is just another sign, I suppose: if we aren’t all done for, it certainly looks that way.

  • Dr Presume says:

    If they were going to award it to an American songwriter, Sondheim would have been my first guess…

    • MWnyc says:

      Sondheim’s work isn’t really songwriting in the same way Dylan’s is. He’s a dramatist (a brilliant one, IMHO), and his songs make only as much sense outside their dramas as opera arias do. And composers don’t get Pulitzers or Grawemeyers for arias; they get them for operas.

      That said, I’d say Sondheim is as worthy of a literature Nobel as any other dramatist working in English today.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Why Bob Dylan? The answer is blowing with the wind, or something so.

  • Sandora says:

    This ranks the Nobel Prize as institution.
    If there is really not a single one poet or author who created something more valuable, than something is seriously wrong with the literacy. In that case it has no place among the list of such recognition.
    If there has been somebody(ies)-and we all know that there are quite a few-who deserved the prize much more than a pop musician………than something seriously wrong with the comittee: They are either hopelessly corrupt or hopelesly incompetent. I can not decide which version is worse but definitely it is a huge slap to literacy and art and to be a little pathetic: to the civilization. The message is a very contemporary one: Populism is more important than real values. Congratulations!

    • David Osborne says:

      Hm and out come the cultural bigots. A wonderful though probably long overdue recognition for the poet of my generation and yes, Leonard Cohen would have been a good choice also but he has hardly had the reach and influence of Dylan. Fortunately the art that survives for generations is the art that speaks to the many, not just the self -imagined elitist few. To dismiss one of the greatest creators of songs of all time as a ‘mere’ (as if there’s something intrinsically wrong with popularity) pop musician is a spectacular demonstration of ignorant snobbishness. You have no clue what you’re talking about.

      • Ellingonia says:

        Well said Mr Osborne, now wait for the erstwhile Mr Borstlap to crawl out of the woodwork muttering phrases about “high art.”

        • David Osborne says:

          His priorities are not where they should be these days. Something to do with needing to compose. That it should come to this…

        • Adam Stern says:

          >> “the erstwhile Mr Borstlap”…

          Who is he now?

        • JBB says:

          If Mr. Borstlap really is erstwhile, I’ll bet we won’t be hearing from him.

          • Sally says:

            Actually, he is quite irritated about the matter, since one of the committee members came to the estate to ask mr B’s advice, somewhere in March, on the choice for the chemistry candidate (before turning to music, mr B did his Ph.D. on Orthorhombic Diphosphorus Isotopes in Strasbourg). When he heard the proposal of the supposed chemistry candidate, who happened to be a former collegue at Strasbourg University, mr B angrily trold the Swedish visitor that they could as well ‘…choose some pop artist for the literature prize’. Since there were some language problems, the meeting did not go very smoothly. Maybe the committee has misunderstood the advice they got from here.

      • Allen says:

        “cultural bigots” ?

        That accusation cuts both ways.

      • Sandora says:

        When we talk about prizes, recognition, or even just commenting those, like we do here,we should look at strictly “professional” issues, not an unclear mixture ideological mess. I would not have any problem with pop musicians, just because it is pop music.But unfortunatelly pop musicians did not proove it yet that they can produce any longlasting values as classical music did. We also can not compare the lyrics of any pop song to literacy.
        .I do not think that someone is snob because he or she prefers an Italian or French restaurant over a McDonalds. But this is very difficult to explain to an average American tourist.

  • Leo says:

    He is an icon of american culture and well deserves this honour.

  • Steven says:

    Sign of the times. Appropriate for the year of Trump and Brexit.

  • Dominique says:

    “Wiggle wiggle like a bowl of soup/Wiggle wiggle like a rolling hoop”. Probably difficult for non-native English speakers, myself included, to understand the poetic greatness in this nonsense.

  • Sonia says:

    If Arafat received the Noble Price for creating the Antifada why be surprised at anyone else getting it?
    He may be a nice person, but I wonder if there are no greater singers and more profound writers or poets in the world?
    Has anyone noticed that the world’s values are again sliding towards an upside down direction?

    • David Osborne says:

      Sonia, he is not reputedly a particularly nice person, or at least wasn’t in his youth. There’s a documentary that covers an English tour from around about the mid-60s and in that portrayal at least he’s quite an unpleasant character. He’s also a notoriously inconsistent live performer. Despite all that he is a great song writer, a great poet and has been for the best part of 60 years. His influence on western culture has been enormous. I agree the Nobel Committee doesn’t always get it right but in this case, they nailed it.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    The only comforting thought I have, is that at least they didn’t give it to Bono.

  • gennie says:

    if they must give Dylan a prize, maybe Peace Prize woudl suit him better, but then again, there surely are singer-songwriters that are better suited for the role. there is a long line for the literature prize, and they are there for good reasons, but Dylan, a contemporary bard, definitely doesn’t fit the shoe.

  • Marc says:

    Such snobbery. Novelists write great novels and few people read them. Politicians make great speeches and few people remember them. But Dylan’s words resonate in all corners of the globe, even if those words were penned (or, in his case, typed) half a century ago. Visit his Web site and read his lyrics to “Desolation Row,” “It’s All Right, Ma,” “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Visions of Johanna,” etc. “Open up yer eyes an’ ears an’ yer influenced an’ there’s nothing you can do about it,” he wrote back in 1962. His influences were many, those he influenced uncountable.

    • Sandora says:

      Marc, if you are trying to say here, that what more popular is, it is more valuable, than you have just explained the whole situation!
      According to this sick philosophy, any cheap tv soap opera represents more values than Moliere or Shakespeare.

      • David Osborne says:

        Sandora, if what you’re trying to say here is that something unpopular is therefore likely to be of superior artistic merit, then that is clearly a nonsense argument. I mean for heaven’s sake we’re not talking about Justin Bieber here, we are talking about a poet who’s work has been for many years taught and discussed in academic circles on much the same level as the two you mentioned. I’m starting to think you may not be an expert on his oeuvre…

        • Sandora says:

          No David, I didn’t say that and you know it. It’s an old debate technic to attact a statement with it’s reverse…
          You are right that he is being taught in some countries.Nothing wrong with that, but please don’t teach him instead of Thomas Mann or Bach! Nowadays universities “teach ” everything and nothing. You can do PhD as a DJ. Unfortunately there has been a massive inflation in education,so what some schools are teaching does not necessarily represents quality or importance. Nowadays if a highly qualified person goes to concert, it is most likely a rock concert, if goes to theatre it is a musical.

          • Olga says:

            Sandora, it’s true what you say, though it is bitter truth.

          • David Osborne says:

            Sandora, I only said it because it’s hard for me to imagine why someone would criticise an artist or author solely on the basis of their being popular- Beethoven and Shakespeare in their lifetimes certainly were, Beethoven despite the fact that he was vehemently opposed by many of the establishment of his day… and please let’s remember that this was not an award for music.

            The thing that I find breathtaking (though it’s hardly surprising) is that in this forum, and I’m guessing we’re all here due to a shared love of classical music; in this forum there is so much negativity on this issue, when really this is a fantastic result for us. It reminds us that this artform must change radically to survive, because if it doesn’t, the end certainly won’t have come because a major literature award was given to a songwriter. At issue here is the inability of our leaders and decision makers to identify music composed in our time that can actually generate new audiences. The inability of music to free itself from the academic control that has so spectacularly failed it. The inability to open the door and let in some different ideas, to allow people to express a dissenting point of view without fearing for their careers.

            All this is greatly assisted by the recognition of the artistic and cultural contribution of someone who is not, just as Beethoven, Wagner, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Elgar, Brahms and many more were not- part of that world. This award might just be the pin that bursts the bubble, the blast that rips a hole in the wall of the Arts ghetto. (Take your pick of those two lazy metaphors).

    • Holly Golightly says:

      I love “The Hurricane” and think its wonderful lyrics and superb arrangement make it eminently listenable and creatively clever.

  • Peter Owen says:

    If Barbara Windsor can become a dame of the British empire anything is possible.

  • Daniel F. says:

    It is entirely consistent of the Nobel Literature folks to give their award to Bob Dylan, given that they FAILED over the years to award it to Tolstoy, Hardy, Conrad, Woolf, Proust, Joyce, Berryman, Roethke, Nabokov, Kundera, and Roth (and I’m sure I’m forgetting many other plausible candidates) but DID award it to….Pearl Buck and Dario Fo.

  • Mark says:

    If the Nobel committee could award the peace prize to Obama before he could possibly have contributed anything to actual peace (and hasn’t done so since becoming president), solely on the basis of Obama being …. well, dark skinned, then why not award the literature prize to Dylan? I’m not saying I’m in favor of this award, but at least Dylan has accomplished something tangentially connected to literature..

  • Carolyn says:

    A pleasure reading these comments. It’s nice to know, somewhere, a few individuals with functioning, developed, and critical braincells still exist. The fact he has influenced so many signals a problem- or, maybe, a warning.

  • V.Lind says:

    Isn’t everyone skating around the question as to whether we consider pop lyrics to be literature, however poetical they might be?

    It’s interesting, and I am still thinking about it. And when I think about it, Cohen tends to trump Dylan, not least because before he ever lifted a guitar in public he had published several books of poetry and two (mercifully forgotten and honestly no very good) novels. He came from a school of Canadian poetry of which Irving Layton was at the head. And he has since published verse in book, not lyric, form. He has more literary chops. I think MWNYC may be right about it being too soon for a Canadian to win again, and I do suspect an American was well due. But what about some of their “real” authors? Don DeLillo comes to mind, and I daresay there are many others who can now kiss it off forever.

    Dylan’s impact has been very wide, and influential in the music world, at least — Cohen might never have taken to song had not another poetical writer with a non-existent voice made such a splash. But I suspect hos influence has turned more young people to picking up guitars — whether they could sing or not — than to writing, while in Canada, a generation of young men wanted to be the next Leonard Cohen. Poet.

    I still find it hard to forgive Dylan for “Lay, Lady, Lay” — not for its content, for its illiteracy. Or lack thereof. It doomed the verb form “to lie” to an early but permanent grave.

  • Pamela Brown says:

    I think it’s great. And he is from Minnesota…:-)

  • Marshall says:

    Yes, as much as Bob Dylan means to me, and there is no denying his impact, but it is a prize for literature. But long ago the Nobel prizes stopped having the meaning they once did, and have become topical and politicized. I have no idea if that’s the case with the ones in science, maybe they still retain some of the original standards and integrity? Obama getting the peace prize-for what exactly?-(it should be rescinded for the holocaust he’s allowed to happen in Syria) and let’s not forget Henry Kissinger was also a winner of it.

    Of course, THE DYLAN is always confined to that first 10 year period where, all those remarkable songs poured out-even as he says, he doesn’t know where they came from, So the news broadcasts were filled with baby face Dylan singing Blowin in the Wing, or Mr. Tambourine Man etc. And the lyrics were amazing, as song lyrics, some bordering on pure poetry. Every few years I go through a Dylan review, and listen to that material and am startled by the imagery he evokes-thinking of Chimes of Freedom, Lay Down your Weary Tune etc. but is this great literature or great song writing, or does anyone care?

    Clearly there are no standards, no hierarchy of values-and it is a world where Hamilton is suggested as a way of saving the Met opera.

  • Donald Wright says:

    I suppose I’ll be trounced and denounced for saying so, but … much as I love Dylan (early acoustical Dylan, that is, being as I am somewhat of a reactionary), I can’t help but think that the Nobel committee awarded it to him more for political than literary reasons. One who writes, or has written, about oppression, subjugation, the downtrodden and dispossessed, etc. (think Naipaul, Gordimer, Vargas Llosa, Müller, Fo, Coetzee, etc.), for whatever other merits he or she may possess, does seem to be bumped up in the pecking order of potential laureates.

    • CDH says:

      Hmmmm…caring about the fate and condition of humankind. Oh, yeah, that’s no concern of an author.

      Of all the reasons to object to Dylan, that’s about the least acceptable of them.

      • Donald Wright says:

        Who objected either to Dylan or to caring about humankind? Not I. You might want to read some of those authors to help improve your reading comprehension. In your haste to self-validate by finding something to be offended about, you misconstrued my meanings.

        • CDH says:

          I’ve read all of them, and I agree with your general assessment of them. But when you phrase yous own assessment of the prize in terms of their concerns getting them “bumped up,” it does rather suggest a negative attitude. Look to your own writing if you wonder at the response to it.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Many pros and cons in the press, crashes of Dylan groupies and horrified literati, and hopes and fears about what comes next in the Nobel front (Snoop Dogg? Kanye West? Noam Chomsky? Roger Scruton?). Follow this link for a very good argument:


    • David Osborne says:

      Fortepiano that is an awful article. If I want to read the work of a narcissistic, self-obsessed, affectatious wanker with an axe to grind, I’ll read my own thank you very much.

  • Joel Cohen says:

    I’m a professional classical music highbrow in a tiny niche field where nobody gets truly famous. Nonetheless, I think the award to Dylan is at the very least defensible. Sung poetry has a long an honorable history, going back to ancient Greece, the Bible, and the Middle Ages, and Dylan’s best pieces do have emotional impact, and staying power over time. Personally, I prefer my namesake Leonard, but that’s a judgement call. I see no scandal here.

  • William Shakespeare says:

    Did the Nobel Committee meant country matters?