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Bob Dylan and the Benevolent Tyranny of Nobel Competition

My late mother, bless her, prodded me to write better by withholding her approval, and I’m grateful to her for that in the same way that Philip Roth should be thankful to the Nobel committee. He and his admirers (and I’m one of them) might not have been able to enjoy the considerable pleasures of Roth’s late-career burst of ambition and prolificacy if he had not been fixated on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Of course, he deserves the honor, at least as much as recent winners such as Herta Muller and Orham Pamuk—and certainly as much as Bob Dylan, apparently a near-winner in the officially secret competition. (I’ve read only a couple of poems by Tomas Tranströmer, and I did that this morning.)

The contention over Dylan’s qualifications for status as a literary figure is a full fifty years old now and largely a creation of pop journalists having fun in the mud pen of the old high-low debate. Since the early 1960s, when Dylan first emerged as a startlingly creative folk songwriter, he has been called a poet—in large part because the words of his best songs have the overt seriousness and elusiveness we associate with poetry, and also in part because the public image he devised and sustained through innumerable transformations has had as its essence the spirit of a 19th-century romantic, the outlier sensitivity we think of as poetic.

Dylan himself has always resisted the title of poet, because that’s not the kind of thing his kind of poet does. He discussed the subject at some length with his first biographer, Robert Shelton, in interviews that Shelton abridged in his book. In the original transcripts (now accessible to researchers at the Experience Music Project in Seattle), Dylan told Shelton:

That’s such a goddamn big word for someone to call themselves “a poet.” I think a poet is anybody who wouldn’t call himself a poet. To be a poet does not necessarily mean that you have to write words on paper. You know what I mean? One of those truck drivers that walks down the fucking motel thing, he’s a poet. He walks just like a poet. He acts like a poet. He talks like a poet. I mean, what else does a poet have to do?

Dylan has done quite a bit of literary value, while walking and acting and talking like a poet of the truck-driver motel-thing school. He has written “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Idiot Wind,” and enough other works of fiery imagination to just about justify his progressive canonization. A Nobel Prize seems almost inevitable, if not obligatory, now. Dylan’s output, in its vastness and breadth, is not consistently brilliant; for every ten songs as good as “Boots of Spanish Leather,” there’s one “Wiggle Wiggle.” Still, his body of work, taken as a whole, is clearly deep and rich enough to meet the elastic standards of the Nobel academy.

The tyranny of all creative competition, particularly that of the highest honors (and there is no higher than the Nobel, short of the sainthood that Dylan probably won’t get), is the secondary effect of transforming those who did not win, suddenly, into losers. Those who are not honorees can seem (or feel) like dishonorees. Roth has surely suffered from this effect in recent years, if only in his own mind. Dylan, as a pop artist taken by way of his nomination into a different (ostensibly higher) realm, is immune to this. His nomination for a Nobel as a songwriter was the equivalent of a win for a writer of poetry or prose, and it has set an important precedent. Of course, Bob Dylan deserves a Nobel, but so did Lorenz Hart and Dorothy Fields and Skip James, all of whom wrote kinds of literature for the singing voice. So, today, do Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Cohen and, in my opinion, Joni Mitchell. Philip Roth shouldn’t feel so bad.