Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Win: A Loss for Literature and for Women?

The selection of Bob Dylan as the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in literature has sparked a lot of debate and discussion amongst critics of both literature and feminism. Early Thursday morning, the surprising announcement was made in Stockholm’s Royal Academy hall. Dylan, now the winner of the 8 million Swedish crown (aka $9 million US) prize, was principally chosen (amongst many reasons) because, according to the members of the Swedish Academy, “He’ s a great poet in the English tradition,” who “[has] created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” According to Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, deciding on Dylan had “not been a difficult decision.” However, many critics easily disagree.

Some intellectuals are baffled by the choice of a popular singer-songwriter as a Nobel laureate. The deciding committee of the Swedish Academy has spoken out in defense of Dylan, claiming him to be a revolutionary figure who has made a significant impact on literature with his songs. There are numerous examples of Dylan’s writing talent being used to address social injustice, especially as he rose to fame during the Civil Rights movement. Some of his most beloved songs include “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which speak to the trials and tribulations many faced amidst a key period of American history in an expressive folk song format. Even his more personal songs, including “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Make You Feel My Love” go beyond the standard heartbreak ballad with their more poetic flow. There are also songs like “Tangled Up in Blue” where, as Guardian writer Richard Williams points out, Dylan “explored ways of playing games with time, voice and perspective.” For critics like Williams, these songs exemplify how Dylan has, in fact, created works worthy of higher regard and recognition. The concern stems from the idea that Dylan, a popular musical artist, has gained entry into the ultimate literary prestige full of creators of what we would recognize as typical literature, including novels, plays, and poetry.

This selection has also been chastised because of the underrepresentation of women in this year’s Nobel Prize winners for all of the awarded disciplines. While the selection of Dylan as the winner is shocking for several reasons, disappointed critics like Natalie Kon-yu, also writing for The Guardian, remind us of the Nobel Prize’s terrible track record with women: only 14 women have won over its 115 year history, and only four of those women have been writers of color. Kon-yu is especially disappointed knowing that the prize is so internationally renowned, and it had missed yet another opportunity to showcase, in her opinion, more quality women.

The members who select the winner of the Nobel Prize ultimately look for “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” These are the instructions Alfred Nobel left in his will. There is evidently a lot of room to work around these terms. However, it’s possible the committee is trying to set forth an expansion of the boundaries of literature that better encompasses the contemporary world. The inclusion of Bob Dylan into the long list of Nobel laureates is controversial for the same reason why it is historical: it challenges and blurs the preconceived notions of high and low culture many of us spend so much class time learning about. The selection of Bob Dylan as this year’s literature prize remains absurd for many right now; however, it definitely seems to be suggesting that, as he sings, the times are a-changing. Perhaps he is just the first of many incredibly gifted singer-songwriters to join these ranks.



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