The primary colors of art are music, painting, and poetry. There are overlaps and offshoots, but these are the fundamental media, traveling via sound, sight, and language to reside in that numinous inner place that we could roughly translate as the soul. To award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature—“for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” according to the Swedish Academy—is, in the most basic sense, a category error. However you might feel about Dylan’s prowess as a wordsmith and poet, there is no denying that the emotional heft of his work comes not from language, but from music. His one great achievement as a writer—his memoir Chronicles—isn’t even cited by the Swedish Academy.
While some will celebrate the fact that an American has finally won this coveted prize after a decades-long drought, I read it as a troll of the American writers and poets who could actually lay claim to the award. Everyone has their preferred American Nobel Laureate—from William H. Gass to Marilynne Robinson to John Ashbery to, yes, Philip Roth—all of whom have been disrespected by the Academy this morning.
Finally, there are two kinds of Nobel Prizes in Literature. One bestows the ultimate literary honor on a writer with a substantial body of work who is universally respected and admired—think Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Toni Morrison or Derek Walcott or Samuel Beckett. The other rewards a great writer who has gone largely unnoticed: Svetlana Alexievich and Imre Kertesz fall into this category. Dylan cannot be put into either, and it’s hard to see what point there is in awarding this prize to someone as famous as Dylan.
Actually, there is a third category of Nobel Prize: the farce. Every so often the Academy embarrasses itself (see: Dario Fo), a good reminder that we should not take the business of award-giving seriously at all.