The day after Jack Kerouac’s funeral, I was sitting around a table of Beat writers. Allen Ginsberg was across from me. Gregory Corso and I were discussing the merits of various writers. I then unintentionally provoked the verbally combative Corso. I told him that I was going to attend a Bob Dylan concert, and I began to praise Dylan. Corso went into a five minute tirade about Dylan and other singer-songwriters who claimed to be poets. Corso was not amused.
Not all the Beats agreed, of course. Ginsberg genuinely admired Dylan. Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s important early girlfriend in New York once told me that if I want to understand Dylan, I should talk to Ginsberg. But, from the beginning of his career, Dylan provoked considerable jealousy and anger in his less emotionally generous competitors and colleagues.
When the announcement of Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize in Literature was made, there were reportedly audible murmurs in the hall. Wasn’t the Prize for writers rather than this…this song maker? I thought of those writers around the world who felt deflated, cheated, and upset at the announcement.
Even Dylan’s most fervent fans surely felt some surprise. I was following the announcement from Sweden on a live blog. When I read Dylan’s name I waited a few minutes thinking there might be some kind of mistake. The greatest song lyricist ever? In my opinion, clearly yes. And Dylan himself seemed to think so. In the current New Yorker, there is an article about Leonard Cohen. In the article, Cohen told of a conversation he had with Dylan, who said, “As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’re Number 1. I’m Number Zero.” Cohen went on to explain how he interpreted the statement: “Meaning, as I understood it at the time—and I was not ready to dispute it—that his work was beyond measure and my work was pretty good.”
But, at the end, Dylan was and is a writer of lyrics and music. No one can dispute his abilities in that role. But there will be, beyond the glee or anguish that different people feel, the simple question: Does Dylan deserve the Nobel in Literature? It’s not an idle question. After all, Tolstoy, Proust, Ibsen, Joyce, Zola, Twain, Chekhov, and Auden are among many literary geniuses who didn’t receive the Literature prize.
Perhaps the principal objection to Dylan getting the award is that his work is meant to be presented not read. As if by fate, an answer to that objection has been provided. Today, on the very day of Dylan’s winning, Dario Fo, the 1997 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, died. Fo won the award as a playwright. Other playwrights who have won include George Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, and Samuel Beckett. Playwrights are not meant to be read. Their work is meant to be performed, with sound, costume, and the other elements of a theatrical event. These playwrights are the appropriate precedents for awarding the Prize to Bob Dylan.
Additionally, Dylan’s influence on others, including novelists, poets, and short story writers, is extraordinary. Virtually by himself, Dylan changed the borders of a song’s possibilities. From the beginning, armed with Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie as his models, he ignored the rules and the pressures of fans.
His detractors can legitimately point to the way he treated women in his life. Some would object to his supposed glorification of drugs. He himself felt some guilt about removing God from his listeners’ lives. But no one can legitimately dispute that Dylan virtually single-handedly transformed at the very least music and, more arguably, all of American culture.
There is a question, though, that I think is more telling. That question is not if Dylan deserves it but rather whether someone else deserves it more. Just to name five, among others, a case can be made that Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, and Thomas Pyncheon all are more deserving.
I’ll confess that I don’t much care for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It is political as much as literary in its choices. Even the choice of Dylan can be understood as a publicity stunt. If it was, it worked. Everyone will be talking about Dylan winning.
I’ll leave it to readers to determine if anyone was more deserving, but I’m pleased Bob Dylan won. I’m happy for the great lyricists, the Harts, Berlins and so many others who have retrospectively gained a measure of respect because one of their own has attained such recognition as a Nobel Prize. I’m happy for those who write songs now. The bar has been raised for them to push themselves harder. And I’m very happy for Dylan’s fans, some of whom no doubt will do as I did and listen to Dylan. I immediately played “The Times They Are A-Changin’” which was the first Dylan song I ever heard.