Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Blowin' in the Wind

My first reaction upon hearing the news last week that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature was "huh" - surprise mixed with a sense of admiration and reservation of judgment. Sure, it was noteworthy, but was he actually worthy of the honour? I had friends of various levels of expertise in studying and teaching literature who weighed in on both sides of the argument on social media over the ensuing days, but I continued to reserve my own final opinion...until now.

I initially compared my reaction to the way in which I responded to Barack Obama's Peace Prize in 2009, but I don't think that comparison was quite accurate, since Obama had not (and I would argue still has not) "earned" it. I think Dylan's award is more like Al Gore's in 2007 - yeah, you could make arguments that it was deserved, but I'm still not sure it was the best choice.

Over the past week, I have had some time to consider my position, and I have found myself increasingly at odds with the pick of Dylan for several reasons. I do not think he was the best American author to choose; Dylan is a safe, canonically approved, anti-establishment choice for the establishment; and I think that there were more interesting and valid "out-of-the-box" picks.

On choosing an American

The Nobel committee, in considering authors from across the globe, have increasingly rarely acknowledged authors from any one particular country. It had been twenty-three years since the last time an American had won, so there was an increasing sense of inevitability that an American would be named to the prize in the near future. So let's make the first concession to our criteria - that the Nobel Prize was seeking to give the award to an American this year.

Dylan is the fourteenth American to be named by the committee to the prize. Here's the list of American Nobel laureates: Sinclair Lewis (1930); Eugene O'Neill (1936); Pearl Buck (1938); T.S. Eliot (1948); William Faulkner (1949); Ernest Hemingway (1954); John Steinbeck (1962); Saul Bellow (1976); Isaac Singer (1978); Czeslaw Milosz (1980); Joseph Brodsky (1987); Derek Walcott (1992); Toni Morrison (1993). I'm not sure that Bob Dylan belongs in that list, but

Let's just consider for a second the twentieth-century American authors who have not received the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel committee does not give awards posthumously, which eliminates many possible authors who arguably should have been named as Laureates before they died: Maya Angelou; Truman Capote; Ralph Ellison; F. Scott Fitzgerald; Robert Frost; Harper Lee; Arthur Miller; Flannery O'Connor; J.D. Salinger; John Updike; Kurt Vonnegut; and Tennessee Williams, among many others.

There are a number of American authors who are often discussed as part of the conversation, much as Margaret Atwood is perennially in the conversation on behalf of Canada (though she is not likely to win as a result of fellow Canadian Alice Munro's win in 2013). Phillip Roth and Don DeLillo have been discussed as meaningful candidates for years, as has Cormac McCarthy. Even weird author Thomas Pynchon is occasionally mentioned as a candidate, and I would posit that Michael Chabon is not that far from having a body of work that could be considered.

I would argue that any of those former four - Roth, DeLillo, McCarthy, and Pynchon - would have been far superior choices to Dylan, and that Chabon would himself be in that conversation with another seminal work. My personal choice of those four would have been McCarthy, whose works have not only existed as literature, but which also have become vital expressions of American culture through film, as in 2007's Best Picture No Country For Old Men. Any of the other three would have been acceptable, but I think McCarthy would have been exceptional if they had to pick an American.

On the literary canon and establishment

Dylan is a "safe" anti-establishment choice, and that his selection actually reinforces the relative irrelevance of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Despite Dylan's noted non-traditional stances and beliefs, he still represents a condoned anti-establishment, and it allows the Nobel committee to feel like they are being revolutionary when they really are not.

Imagine, for a moment, that the committee chosen an author from a visible American minority, possibly even an author who has been known for advancing queer literature. That would have been notable, just as Dylan being named Laureate would have been more significant if it happened closer to the original period in which he was originally writing.

Dylan has been accepted as part of the literary canon, and his selection does not really challenge any pre-conceived assumptions about literature. There is, after all, a long tradition of high school English teachers using Dylan's work in their classes - even in movies like Dangerous Minds - though I'm not sure that any system that features The Hunger Games as a recommended novel should be acknowledged as a source of any form of canonical validation. (I just committed a logical fallacy, I know, but I stick by my point as one of those English teachers - although I refuse to teach The Hunger Games. But I digress.)

Furthermore, although Dylan is singular as a figure in music, that there are other figures who are arguably equally as singular and as poetic and as canonically accepted in their body of work: Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Elton John, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young, among others.

You could argue that, as many have, that Dylan is a step up from the rest, but I don't think that he represents that much of a step up that he should be singled out as a Nobel Laureate for his "contributions to American songwriting". Then again, I am willing to admit that I have not really been personally connected or impacted by Dylan's music, so I might not be as disposed to be as sympathetic to his cause, regardless of how objective I am trying to be.

On redefining "literature"

It seems, through Dylan's selection, that the committee is trying to make a statement about the expanding nature of what could (and apparently should) be considered as "literature" in terms of form, so let's go down this rabbit hole. The award has traditionally been given to novelists, essayists, playwrights, and poets, but never a songwriter, so this was outside the box - but I would argue that it's not the most interesting way to leave the box.

Consider, for a moment, that there has never been a true "genre" writer who has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. All of the winners have been accepted as part of the mainstream canon, and there are many genres - horror, science fiction, and fantasy, chiefly - that have not received much, if any, attention from the committee over the years.

The committee missed the opportunity to award many of the greatest science fiction and fantasy authors who have passed away, including (but not limited to): Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick; Robert Heinlein, Aldous Huxley, and J.R.R. Tolkien. But I would argue that there are some intriguing possible candidates who are at least worthy of discussion.

I'll start with the most out-of-the-box idea: Stephen King. Sure, it seems odd to consider Stephen King as a Nobel Laureate, but why not? If you do not closely consider his writing style, which is occasionally somewhat stunted and awkward, so much as you consider how he has not only inspired an entire genre but been one of the most significant bridges between popular culture and literary tradition, he could make sense as a Laureate.

Or perhaps you might consider another odd choice in English author Alan Moore, who has been responsible for many of the top graphic novels of the past thirty years: Batman: The Killing Joke; V For Vendetta; From Hell; and Watchmen, which was named one of Time Magazine's Top 100 novels published between 1923 and 2005. Moore redefined comics and essentially created a new type of literature that combined visuals and text.

There are some who would make a case for George R.R. Martin (I'm not sure I'm one of them, but there are many), but there are other future possible candidates within the world of sci-fi/fantasy like Neil Gaiman, or the author who I think should have been named Laureate this year: Ursula K. LeGuin.

LeGuin is an American woman who has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards over a five-decade career and who has often been named one of America's best novelists. She has written several seminal novels, including A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed, and she has represented a voice for women and an exploration of alternative viewpoints throughout her body of work.

LeGuin's selection would have been significant as only the fifteenth women of 109 Laureates, and
although there has been some attempts to equalize the gap in the past twenty-five years, there is still a long way to go. LeGuin being a Laureate would also be a message that would serve to disarm much of the current "alt-right" movement in sci-fi that has tried to take over the Hugo Awards in recent years, and while I acknowledge that it is not the Nobel Committee's job to do so, I would have liked to see it happen.

Whether you agree with the candidates listed here - and I'm not even sure that I agree with King or Moore as more than a hypothetical piece in an argument - the point is that there could have been other ways that the Nobel Committee would have expanded the definition of literature.


Maybe this is all just a lot of words about something that ultimately does not really matter - kind of like the Academy Awards or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's a fairly arbitrary honour chosen by a select few that has significance because it's significant and not necessarily because it reflects reality. This is not the first Nobel Prize to be contentious, it will not be the last, and it is nowhere near the most contested.

I suppose I can be okay with Bob Dylan being a Nobel Laureate. I would still prefer that the award had been given to someone else like McCarthy or LeGuin, but I can consent that Dylan is not the worst possible choice that the Committee could have made. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement, I know, but I think it's as far as I can go at this point. I see enough reasons that the committee could  and should have chosen someone else that I just cannot fully support Bob Dylan being a Nobel Laureate. 

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