Bob Dylan's Nobel Speech: "Are My Songs Literature?"

bob-dylan-obama

Bob Dylan receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom May 29, 2012

When Bob Dylan was named recipient of the The Nobel Prize in Literature, response among writers and cultural critics was mixed. In “Why Bob Dylan Shouldn’t Have Gotten a Nobel,” editor and author Anna North argued from the New York Times opinion section:

 

“Yes, Mr. Dylan is a brilliant lyricist. Yes, he has written a book of prose poetry and an autobiography. Yes, it is possible to analyze his lyrics as poetry. But Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer.”

Conversely, cultural critic Sean O’Hagan believes those who dismiss Dylan’s literary credentials because he is not a writer in the traditional sense are missing the point. Writing “Fascinating, Infuriating, Enduring: Bob Dylan deserves his Nobel prize” for The Guardian, O’Hagan contended:

“Bob Dylan exists in a world of his own, stubbornly out of step with the prevailing culture just as he once singlehandedly defined it. He is not a songwriter in the classic sense, nor a poet in the traditional sense, nor does he create literature in the accepted sense of the word; that, in fact, is the whole point – he has sidestepped these definitions on his singular journey. He’s Bob Dylan.”

For his part, the reclusive songwriter and musician did not immediately acknowledge the honor, announced in October, and ultimately did not attend the December 10th Nobel Banquet to receive it in person. But in the acceptance speech he penned, which was delivered by the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji, he squarely addressed the question surrounding his worthiness of the award.

“Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?'” he wrote, citing Shakespeare as a playwright who, in the bard’s day, was likely preoccupied with the mundanities of producing and staging his work rather than whether it would one day be received as literature. Dylan, however, closed the speech expressing gratitude to the Swedish Academy for the time they spent preoccupying themselves with the question, and “providing such a wonderful answer.”

u-s-ambassador-to-sweden-azita-raji-read-bob-dylans-remarks-at-nobel-banquet

Azita Raji, U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, delivered Bob Dylan’s acceptance speech at the Nobel Banquet December 10, 2016. (Photo via NewsInfo.Inquirer.Net)

Read the full transcript of Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech, published by the Nobel Foundation, below:

Good evening, everyone. I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy and to all of the other distinguished guests in attendance tonight.

I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: KiplingShawThomas MannPearl BuckAlbert CamusHemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.

I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.

If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.

Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.

But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

My best wishes to you all, 

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan Won the Nobel Prize in Literature!

bob-dylan-wins-nobel-prize-in-literature_via-nobel_peoplewhowriteOur 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 CattonTeju 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.

The Guardian‘s review of Smith’s 2012 novel NW noted “The whole of the first section is defined by its resistance to genre…” The Washington Post review further explained:

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.)