West and Grand

A Short Comment on Media, the Definition of Literature, and Bob Dylan

The presidential debates have rightfully taken up most of the headlines these last few weeks, but amid the hustle and bustle, an intriguing story has developed. Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. Although it hasn’t caused near as much controversy needed to overtake a significant amount of scrutiny from Trump and Clinton, many participants of the literary community have weighed in on the decision. Some find it a shocking revelation that demeans the integrity of literature and its most prestigious prize, while others see it a step towards a more accepting notion of what literature encompasses. I stand somewhere in the middle.

Literature’s basest definition quantifies it as a written work. To win an award like the Nobel Prize, the writer’s work has to contribute greatly to the medium, providing veritable innovation to the craft. The words of Alfred Nobel state that a winner must have produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Now, Bob Dylan’s influence reverberates throughout all music made in the last 50 years. His contribution to music, aside from his lasting social and political forethought, appropriately postures him as, quite frankly, the most important musician of the 20th century. He may not be the most technical guitarist, or the most mellifluous vocalist, but music, and more specifically American music, owes a lot to Bob Dylan. 

But that is music, not literature. Do I think writers have been influence by Bob Dylan? Perhaps, but not in a way that logistically descries itself within the work of modern writers. Sure, a mode of social, humanistic thinking, and its prolonged influence can be traced back to Dylan’s influence, but writers aren’t looking at his work for literary purposes. If we are supposed to consider Dylan a poet, we have to read his lyrics outside of the musical accompaniment. That quite frankly devalues his work, but also subjugates it to a system of evaluation outside of lyricism. What I’m trying to say is that outside of his songs, his lyrics, read as words on a page, are good, but not great.

Therein lies the crux, but there are positives to his nomination. Foremost, literature has expanded its scope. The Nobel Committee has erased the line in the sand, giving aspiring artists an opportunity to receive the plaudits he or she deserves. Though, this could in time prove contradictory, denigrating literature by turning the prize into a contest of popularity. But there are aspects of literariness in songwriting, and who are we to judge the form–instead we will look at the merit of the work. Bob Dylan has changed the course of art, and the definitions we ascribe to artistry. The leaves are changing colors, and it’s our choice to swim or sink like a stone. 

Alejandro Font
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