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Bob Dylan performs in Los Angeles in January, 2012. (CHRIS PIZZELLO/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Bob Dylan performs in Los Angeles in January, 2012. (CHRIS PIZZELLO/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Dave Bidini

Dylan is great – but he’s no literary Nobel winner Add to ...

Dave Bidini is a member of Rheostatics

Last month, I spent an evening with a group of musicians telling Bob Dylan stories: that time a friend of a friend of a friend in an opening band awkwardly shook his hand after missing the meeting where they were told to avoid eye contact at all times; that other time Dave from the Zambonis saw Bob in the parking lot during a Guess Jeans event in Las Vegas and called to him, only to have the legendary songwriter say, “I don’t know who you are, man!,” and finding choice words to tell him to get lost; and that time where Mr. Dylan fired a session musician by asking him to go out and get him the sheet music for White Christmas. On and on it went. We all had stories– one better than the other– about the genius musician and his mythic life, which careers through its seventh decade.

Bob Dylan has been cited by nearly every important institution around the world– the Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Golden Globes, a Pultizer Prize and an Ordre des Arts et des Lettres– and now this: a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Twitter and other social media reacted to the news like a person with their hair on fire: whirling about trying to bat at the flames. It wasn’t easy to put out the blaze. Opinions rage on both sides – Mr. Dylan, despite being primarily a lyricist, was a legitimate and worthy recipient; Mr. Dylan, being primarily a lyricist, wasn’t worthy of a major literary award – and the discussion raised salient points about whether or not a musician, or lyricist, should be cited by an award that, traditionally, has recognized the career-long work of a writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction.

I treasure Bob Dylan and his work. His contribution to music, culture, politics and art has been singular in terms of its impact and consistency, and his lyrics have added to the lexicon, to say nothing of popularizing verse in a time of poetic decline.

And yet I believe that measuring the art of the lyric against the art of prose is unfair because prose exists solely on the page while the lyric does not. The lyric dances with voice and instrument while prose is left to stand naked against a tree. The lyric hides its weaknesses through melody while prose has to be strong enough to withstand the vacuum of its own existence. Bad lyrics can be good lyrics– AC/DC’s Bon Scott sang “She had the face of an angel smiling with sin / The body of Venus with arms” and the crowd exploded– but bad prose is usually just that.

The Nobel Prize for literature finds its power, I think, in recognizing, and popularizing, if for one notable day or week, the lonely writer: the person without a drummer or bass player who spends most of their time alone in a dark room with mouldy coffee mugs and chewed pencils trying to hack out a paragraph. The Nobel committee points us to brilliant work that is often neglected– last year’s winner, Belarus’s Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich, is a perfect example of this – as well as providing a rare opportunity for literature to be celebrated in its own country, which was the case when Canada’s incomparable Alice Munro won in 2013.

Bob Dylan finds us on the radio, in commercials, in films and on streaming services every day. That he was cited while groundbreaking authors who struggle to be heard is a difficult circle to square, especially in a time when fewer writers are published– or can earn a living – in an age of winnowing print runs, declining newspapers, and short-form digital communication.

Is Bob Dylan a writer? Yes. Are his lyrics (and songs) among the greatest in the 20th century musical canon? Yes. Should his work be recognized as literature? No. His award means one less opportunity to celebrate those who have devoted their lives to books.

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