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Rockin’ the Nobel: Reactions to Dylan’s Literature Prize

October 13, 2016
by Pat Joseph
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The Nobel Committee announced this morning that an American had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

No, not Philip Roth or Don Delillo or Joyce Carol Oates or any other stalwart of American letters, but Bob Dylan. That’s right, Bob F@#$ing Dylan!—one of the most famous, not to mention enigmatic, rock stars of all time. While the adenoidal, gravelly-voiced troubadour has indeed published honest-to-god books, including his 2005 memoir, Chronicles, that’s not what the Swedish academy was recognizing him for. Rather, it credited Mr. Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” 

Almost immediately several critics suggested the prize committee had made a category mistake, or worse, shirked its responsibilities. The New Republic’s Ryan Spaeth called it “a troll of the American writers and poets who could actually lay claim to the award.” If the Nobel committee wants to recognize a musician, Spaeth argued, it “should create an award for music.” Writing in The New York Times, Anna North opined, “Bob Dylan does not need a Nobel Prize in Literature, but literature needs a Nobel Prize. This year, it won’t get one.” 

Wondering whether that view was widely shared, we solicited comments from friends, faculty and alumni of UC Berkeley. Here are some of the reactions we received: 

Juan Felipe Herrera, U.S. Poet Laureate, professor emeritus UC Riverside

It is personal for me—Bob Dylan’s global and deep recognition. His flamey, rebel razored, border rambling and rough cut, feverish and desolate howler song cries, street howls, Old West outlaw country twangin’ and mystical murmuring matched my inner life in the outer orbits of society as I was coming of age in the ’60s and ’70s. He was the “coarse-bred son,” as the critics once said of Keats, who searched for beauty and yanked it out from every drop of blood and spirit in his body as he envisioned it, luminous in the world. He moved me, moved all of us, through times of trouble and times of deep change. 

Ishmael Reed, author, poet and professor emeritus of English at UC Berkeley

Puzzling. Another strange Nobel Prize decision. I met the Nobel judges in Prague. Elderly white men. The prize should have either gone to Don Delillo or Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Dylan has even been accused of plagiarism. The Pulitzers, The National Book Awards, and The Nobel Prize need to diversify their pool of judges.

Matthew Zapruder, poet and editor of The New York Times Magazine’s poetry column

I’m so happy Dylan got the Nobel. They gave it to him for new forms in poetic expression. Strictly speaking, I don’t think he is a poet, or that his song lyrics are poetry, but I don’t think they have to be in order to be the highest form of literature. I personally love Dylan, and am proud as an American that he represents the best of us, especially in these times. 

Wendy Lesser, Editor, The Threepenny Review

I think he’s a great and very inventive choice, actually, and I commend the Committee’s adventurousness. I don’t see why poetry accompanied by music shouldn’t count as poetry, and certainly Bob Dylan’s verse stands up to close scrutiny, as Christopher Ricks’s many intelligent exegeses have demonstrated. Since I’ve loved Dylan’s songs my entire adult life (and a bit from teenage years, too), I felt somehow vindicated by the selection.

Timothy Ferris, author, science writer, and professor emeritus, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Ferris produced the Golden Record for the NASA Voyager mission

Bob Dylan is the most influential artist in the world, in any medium. He richly deserves the Prize. … We considered him for inclusion on the Golden Record, but as the Prize attests, a lot of his brilliance is in the writing, which we couldn’t expect to translate to an extraterrestrial audience. Come to think of it, though, outer space may be the only venue Bob’s not conquered by now. 

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