The streak is broken. This week, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded its prize in literature to an American writer for the first time since Toni Morrison in 1993. It was not Philip Roth, who has long been presumed to be the most deserving and inevitable choice if the Swedes could ever get over their vague and genteel distaste for the United States or Jews or sex. No, instead it was another near-contemporary with an identical background, albeit one whose ancestors wound up not in the crammed ethnic enclaves of post-war New Jersey but the frozen farmland of the upper Midwest.
His name is Bob Dylan. Perhaps you’re heard of him.
Dylan’s prize is one of the most surprising Nobel choices in recent memory, and not just because it turns out the Nobel people maybe aren’t such anti-American anti-Semites after all. (Guys, I kid. For the record, I never thought they were.) But for the past two decades or so, it’s been the prerogative of the awarding committee to make the prize truly international, to bring attention to important and brilliant writers that are often overlooked by large, English-speaking markets: Svetlana Alexievich, Patrick Modiano, Herta Muller, and so forth. There have, of course, been big-name English-language writers selected in the past decade or so: Alice Munro, Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter (also Jewish, and thus another reason why the Roth argument has always seemed a bit specious to me—and, it’s worth noting, not advanced by Roth himself). But for the most part, the Nobel Prize has served to the advance, rather than not acknowledge, a given writer’s fame or popularity.
Dylan, on the other hand, is an almost shockingly renowned choice; an honest-to-God rock legend and, despite his various hermitic and odd behaviors—my favorite recent story involves him being arrested in a New Jersey rainstorm when a homeowner became concerned about the “eccentric-looking old man” who had wandered into their yard—a major, major celebrity. The Nobel committee won’t be introducing millions of oblivious literature lovers to his work, nor will he be a boon to booksellers, as Dylan, to put it plainly, is not primarily known for his publishing career.
This in-between has caused consternation to many, many poets and authors who are angry that a different kind of literary writer—someone who had spent decades painstakingly assembling collections of difficult short fiction, for example—had not been chosen. I understand the concern: writing serious literature is a lonely, and typically un-renumerative profession. And of all the things you can say about Bob Dylan, that he needs the money the prize will bring (about $1.2 million), is probably not one of them.
But Dylan’s contributions to the world of literature are vast and earth-shattering. More than probably any other living writer—and arguably, more than any writer since Shakespeare—he has brought a living, breathing poetry to the masses. He revolutionized the idea of songwriting, the idea of music, the idea of protest, and of language itself. The world of poetry, of music, and indeed, the world itself is different because of Bob Dylan. This may not be the most the highbrow, obscurant Nobel Prize in history. But in a time where its clear that so many feel left behind, it may be the most democratic one.