Bob Dylan is a genius. No one can doubt, as the Nobel Prize committee in awarding him the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature stated, that he "created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition" or that lyrics should be considered literature (and there is also great value in Nobel using their cultural capital to inclusively and definitively stretch its borders to include them). But by awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan in 2016 the Academy are breaking their trust with us. It is retrograde, turns its back finally on Nobel’s principles of progress, on what the Prize stands for and sets a precedent for the Prize to become, even more than it always has been, a lifetime achievement award. Which would make it, its value to society and to literature, infinitely poorer.
Sir Alfred Nobel amassed his fortune through various inventions in weaponry including dynamite. Towards the end of his life he gave great thought to his legacy and wrote a will bequeathing his fortune to the establishment of prizes in chemistry, physics, medicine, peace and literature which were first awarded in 1901 (economics was added significantly later).
The prizes had an immediate impact, partly because of the strange way they’d been founded by such a notorious man and partly because of the huge cash prize, the equivalent to half a lifetime’s earnings. They were the original "genius" grants, conferred to reward the best work and provide freedom to pursue ongoing work unfettered by having to earn a living. But regardless of notoriety and wealth the prizes had to earn the social and cultural capital they have achieved, as every prize does.
Prizes and awards exist in symbiosis with the public they inform and the people they reward. Without the Nobel Prize its recipients aren’t public geniuses but without awarding geniuses publicly the Nobel Prize isn’t anything but a cash lump sum. It had to earn and keep on earning its place in our esteem to maintain its cultural value. Prizes also don’t exist to award popularity: the market does this and is very good at it. To point us to writers who are pursuing art and creating great work regardless of popularity is what imparts to the Nobel prize its stature. This isn’t to say it should ignore the popular, but it should work independently of it.
To this day the Academy acknowledges that "the history of the Literature Prize appears as a series of attempts to interpret an imprecisely worded will". The will stated that the all five categories should be conferred on those whose work offers the "greatest benefit on mankind" and for literature this was specified as "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction". The Swedish Academy charged with administering the prize had license to specify this a little further and settled on "not only belles-lettres, but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value" and changed the original restriction that works awarded be presented "during the preceding year" so that "older works" could be considered "if their significance has not become apparent until recently".
It is the concept of what "an ideal direction" means that causes problems and it is open to a huge range of interpretations. The world moves at a pace and culture and literature move with it. There is a direction of travel towards the new: bold discoveries that irrevocably change our world. Progress. This is definitely easier to judge in the sciences but great literature progresses us too. Progress is not only scientific and political it is social: we progress in empathy, understanding, humanity and dignity and great literature demonstrates this and moves us forward in it. At the same time there has always been a comfortable establishment who are disrupted by this change and seek to stall or stamp it out. Bob Dylan wrote about it in 1964 in "The Times They Are A-changin". Fifty years later the Academy are awarding him for it, for work that definitely possesses literary value but whose significance has long been apparent, whose progress was made a lifetime ago. The flaw for me is that in doing so the Academy seems to be turning its back on the importance of progress. Dylan progressed literature but even Dylan’s greatest fans admit his best work was produced before 1975. When Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy was asked at the announcement where to start exploring Dylan she had three words: "Blonde on Blonde." It was released in 1966 (and let’s take a moment to think of what a world it would be if the Academy had chosen rightly to award him then). But the world, literature and the American songbook have progressed so much, yet the Academy seem to be aping what is fast becoming the world’s most tedious meme, that of the baby boomer generation truly believing the apotheosis of culture to have been the '60s and '70s.
You could make the argument about any laureate, that by the time they are awarded they have a body of work and for most their best is behind them. But you can spot check and see that almost all are continuing to produce work that moves literature and culture forward and the greatest laureates are absolutely at the height of their powers when awarded.
I do not doubt the Academy had a clear vision in mind when they chose Dylan over any of the celebrated front-runners or lesser known greats who are pushing the boundaries of literature in their respective fields. Whether it was to cause populist controversy to re-engage the prize with the mass English speaking world or merely get themselves a great gig on December 10 we won’t know for 50 years when the papers are released. Maybe Dylan will surprise us all with his greatest work yet to come, lyrics as literature that truly move us, emotionally and progressively. But either way let’s hope that next year, this flurry of publicity over, the Academy will return to finding that balance in a writer with a body of great work, but who is still moving us forward in that ideal direction, showing through literature the power and beauty of times a-changin’.
Julia Kingsford is co-founder of Kingsford Campbell.
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