On Thursday, the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan. The response has ranged from disbelief to delight, with some saying that giving the prize to Dylan is a farcical screw-up, and others arguing that no artist could be more deserving. Deputy Editor Ryu Spaeth, a Dylan skeptic, sat down to talk with News Editor Alex Shephard, a Dylan fanboy, about the Nobel Prize, the future of American literature, and “Girl From the North Country.”
Ryu Spaeth: Hello, Alex. A week ago, when Bob Dylan was merely a dorm room poster and not a Nobel Laureate, you wrote an article called, “Who Will Win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature?” The subheadline at least partially answered the question: “Not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure.” Well, you were completely, fantastically wrong.
Alex Shephard: Well, let’s not forget that almost exactly one year ago, I also wrote, “If Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize I will eat my copy of Blood on the Tracks.” Oops!
It is hard for me to overstate how funny I think this is. I have been getting owned nonstop for the entire day. I am the Bill Kristol of Nobel Prize predictors now! Being the Bill Kristol of anything is terrible, and being able to say “I know how Bill Kristol must feel more or less constantly” also isn’t great. But of all the things to get thoroughly, horribly wrong, I’ll take the Nobel Prize in Literature. Also, most of the jokes that people are making at my expense are pretty funny.
Ryu Spaeth: This might be a good time to divulge a trade secret, which is that it was I, your editor and beloved mentor, who wrote the dek “Not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure.”
Alex Shephard: Yeah, thanks a lot man. I guess I’ll explain my methodology though, because why not? My assumption was that Dylan was a gambler’s candidate, one whose odds were based more or less entirely on Baby Boomer self-regard. I also assumed that the Swedish Academy took itself a lot more seriously than it apparently does. (I overlooked its mischievous streak—the smile on the woman who read the announcement today is an image I will never forget.) But also my Nobel piece was about the silliness of punditry—the Nobel Prize is designed to bring out the worst in a lot of otherwise sharp people—so I tried to have some fun with it. And that means making big, dumb predictions.
Two other things: One is that I am happy that Bob Dylan won because I am a big fan of his music. The other is that I also assumed that he wouldn’t win the Nobel Prize because the Swedish Academy wouldn’t be able to justify giving it to him over perennial American favorites like Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, who both now almost certainly have no chance of ever winning the prize.
Ryu Spaeth: Let’s start with the first thing. My main problem with giving Dylan the Nobel, besides the memories it invokes of playing too much Super Smash Brothers in a dorm room that reeked of stale bong water, is that he is a musician. As I argued earlier today, it’s a category error. Music is an entirely different mode of expression that uses tools that are unavailable to the writer. Like, is the ache on a song like “Girl From the North County” expressed by the lyrics or the harmonica, or some combination of the two? Music is melody and rhythm and harmony, and at its best writing can achieve only one of those characteristics (rhythm). There’s a reason you always hear that Walter Pater line: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” It’s because music exists in this other sphere where form and subject are identical, where the sound of a harmonica represents nothing more than the sound of a harmonica. How can any other art compete? Dylan adds words to that sound, but the sound is a bass line, so to speak, anchoring his art.
This is all to say that “Girl From the North County” is a song, not a poem, and that Bob Dylan is a musician, and that he shouldn’t be awarded a prize that is meant to be for writing. Right?
Alex Shephard: As logic, it works! But I don’t think that the Swedish Academy has ever really given a damn about logic—that’s one of the things that makes pundit-ing the Nobel so fun. The conventional wisdom is that the Nobel Prize goes to an Estonian poet every year, which is why people practically schedule “Who?” tweets before the announcement. But the quasi-oral historian Svetlana Alexievich is a Nobel Laureate; so is Italian clown Dario Fo (RIP); and, if my mentions are to be trusted, no one really knows if Patrick Modiano is a quintessential Nobel Laureate or a total outlier. I guess this is a convoluted way of saying that the Nobel Prize doesn’t give a damn what categories we choose to foist on it.
In one sense, giving it to a musician is an odd choice because—unlike novelists and playwrights and poets—the question of authorship is a complicated one. Mike Bloomfield owns Highway 61 Revisited nearly as much as Dylan does. (And Larry Campbell, who is sorely missed in Dylan’s current band, deserves more credit for his resurgence than he gets.) On the other hand, authors aren’t the islands people like to think they are—it takes a lot of people to make a novel—so I also have no problem with this.
That said, the Swedish Academy knew exactly what they were doing when they did this. I simultaneously think it’s a great and inspired choice and a giant middle finger aimed at people (like me!) who have been asking when, at long last, they would honor an American again.
Ryu Spaeth: Right, the middle-finger component seems undeniable. Clearly the Swedish Academy does not think much of Philip Roth or Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon or any of the usual names that pop up every October. And to be fair, I’ve always been irked by the implicit notion in the American media that America somehow deserves another Nobel Prize, when there are plenty of less famous, non-American writers out there who have done monumental work that is just as good, if not better, Svetlana Alexievich being the most recent example. But at the same time, it does seem like a slap in the face to a lot of American writers who have been toiling on novels and plays and poems for years, while Dylan has been PLAYING GUITAR, WHICH IS NOT WRITING.
Alex Shephard: Are you mad, Ryu? I mean, I retreat to this position more than is probably healthy, but I guess my big response to that is, “Who cares, my man?” Also, Dylan hasn’t been able to play guitar for a while because he has busted wrists and is an old man. He does still do a pretty mean soft shoe, if you’ve seen him live, which I’m assuming you haven’t.
But I may not be the best person to offer a counterpoint. I’m listening to “Workingman’s Blues” from Dylan’s 2006 album Modern Times right now. That song contains the objectively terrible lyric: “The buying power of the proletariat’s gone down / Money’s getting shallow and weak.” And I love it. I will stand for (most of) Dylan’s late career arc, even though he’s burrowed so far into his “hobo trickster” persona that he’s basically just a croak wearing a porkpie hat. I have no idea who Dylan is now and I don’t care one bit—the songs are good. Do you think you would feel differently if you liked Bob Dylan?
Ryu Spaeth: This is actually a relevant question, since most of the commentary about this issue has been colored by individual feelings about Bob Dylan. If you like Bob Dylan, there’s a good chance you’ll throw cherished principles and the objective fact that he’s a musician out the window, and say, “Hey, Bob Dylan, who I like, won some huge prize that could have been wasted on some Estonian poet instead, which is great!” If you don’t like Bob Dylan, you’re more likely to stick rigidly to principles that you never knew you even possessed, but have quickly become the central pillars in your outlook on life and art. What I’m saying is that Bob Dylan is bad.
To go back to our discussion of what this means for American literature—would you say this is a puckish capstone on a certain era, that era being the annual speculation that one of the (mostly male) giants of American literature who achieved prominence between the 1960s and the 1980s would win the Nobel? Should we start throwing out newer names for consideration? And what would those names be?
Alex Shephard: To your point about Alexievich, one of the issues is that people think that the Nobel Prize exists to champion a certain kind of world literature. That would be a noble (ugh) thing to do! But it’s not really what the Nobel Prize has historically done, even if some of its choices veer in that direction. If nothing else, today is a reminder that the Nobel Prize in Literature is decided by six old Swedish people who clearly have a sense of humor.
As for your question about American literature: This prize is a big win for Baby Boomers and the world tends to lose when Boomers win. If there’s a silver lining for those bitter about the Dylan Nobel Prize, it’s that no Nobel Laureate will bring Boomers this much joy again. And it seems unlikely that any of the great post-war American writers will get the nod.
In my Nobel preview I wrote about America’s “deep bench.” There are a lot of people in that post-war generation who are deserving (or at least plausible) Nobel Laureates: Roth, Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Ursula Le Guin, DeLillo—hell, I’ll be nice for a change and throw Joyce Carol Oates into the mix. But if you start to look at the next generation, it gets a lot thinner. The ascendant generation—writers in their 50s and early 60s—isn’t as impressive: Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Chabon, Louise Erdrich, Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Franzen. (I shudder to think what will happen when Franzen’s name enters speculation in a few years.)
So I don’t know, really. The Underground Railroad makes me feel like Colson Whitehead will enter the conversation down the line, but he’s only 46, two decades-ish away from senior citizenry and Nobel speculation. I have faith in the younger generation, in other words, but they’re a long way out.
Ryu Spaeth: In another respect, the field has gotten WAY bigger. Kanye! Beyonce! Liam Gallagher! (I’ll be personally rooting for Liam, who is good at rock and roll and has a way with words.) David Bowie would have crushed Bob Dylan in the Nobel sweepstakes if he were still alive. Anyway, I’m glad you are happy. Tonight I’m going to pour one out for literature. RIP literature.