Our cultural definition of literature has officially been blown wide open with the Swedish Academy’s award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to songwriter Bob Dylan. Past prizes have recognized essayists, playwrights, poets, novelists, and writers of various genres of non-fiction prose, but this is the first time the Nobel has been awarded to an artist primarily known for writing songs.
The Swedish Academy awards lifetime achievement in six categories–Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Medicine, Peace, and Economic Sciences–evidently using “Literature” as a catchall for all arts and letters genres, while approaching the sciences with a bit more nuance. This reading of Literature in the broadest sense has sparked confusion, derision, and appreciation at the inclusion of an artist most people have heard of.
@n_martinsson tweeted: “Probably the first time I have works of this years Nobel Prize winner in my Bookshelf.” @chrispbone added: “Bob Dylan, imma let you finish, but Geri Halliwell wrote some of the best songs of all time.” @sabrinajeria wrote: “Nothing against Dylan but it’s a shame so many incredibly deserving novelists were overlooked.” The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and British Indian author Salman Rushdie had been among a shortlist of rumored frontrunners for the prize.
We’ll have to wait and see how the Academy’s honor of a non-traditional literary life will impact the tastes of acquiring editors at the publishing houses, but with venues for consuming literature changing by the minute–see Wally Lamb’s plans to release his upcoming sixth novel via an app, Beyonce’s collaboration with Warsan Shire on her album Lemonade which led to a sales spike and widespread recognition for the Somali poet, and Aziah King‘s viral twitter tale of a stripper’s wild weekend in Florida–our collective understanding of what literature is will continue to expand. Not to mention the fact that telecommunications companies are expressing interest in adding literature to the content they serve up to subscribers.
These developments open up the possibilities for how literature can be experienced and expand what readers will expect from their literary content. This expansion will eventually reflect in the work editors publish.
It’s already evident in the literary prize landscape. The Goldsmiths Prize was founded in 2013 specifically to “encourage more risk-taking among novelists, editors and agents alike,” with Goldsmiths creative writing professor Blake Morrison observing, “There’s an idea that innovative and genre-busting books are bound to be inaccessible. We don’t believe that’s the case.”
Writers like Eleanor Catton, Teju Cole , and Zadie Smith have also been interrogating traditional forms and experimenting with new ways to tell compelling stories for some time now. Catton won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries which was in excess of 800 pages and chronologically structured around zodiac signs. Likewise, Cole has been lauded for his literary use of Twitter (I love his seven short stories about drones), as well as the stream of consciousness style of his 2011 novel Open City.
Each of the four sections of “NW” demonstrates a different form. There’s no second-person narrator or anything as weird as a PowerPoint presentation, but the longest part of “NW” is divided into 185 short, numbered sections, ranging from straightforward narrative to menu items, quiz answers, IM chats and even stage directions. I sympathize if you have no patience for this sort of experimentation, which can seem so graspingly avant-garde, but Smith uses the swirl of these disparate elements to illustrate the complexity of modern life.
Additionally, though “alt lit” has been declared “dead,” the genre also signals a hunger among writers and readers for alternative narrative expressions.
As writers, whether we choose to be more experimental with our work or double down in our obeisance to more classically literary forms, the box-breaking genre defiance that’s happening in and around literature doesn’t have to be scary if we are prepared for it. But prepare we must. Like it or not, “the times, they are a’ changin’.” (I had to.)