Did Dylan deserve a Nobel?

There’s nothing we like better than bathing in the reflected glow of additional fame heaped on someone who couldn’t wait to get out of Minnesota. So, when Bob Dylan, who first name is actually not “Minnesota native”, was named the recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature today, we instinctively wrapped our arms around “one of us” and — again, let’s face it — claimed the prize as our own.

This, of course, prevented us from having the much more intellectually stimulating conversation: Should Bob Dylan — hell of a songwriter — be getting the Nobel Prize for literature?

Fortunately, not everyone in the world is from Minnesota, so the conversation is taking place on Twitter, where other states’ famous people are debating the question, as monitored by CNBC.


There’s always the question of who should have won the prize today if not Dylan?

“This Nobel is therefore a sort of lifetime achievement award, which certainly recognizes the great Dylan talent in writing lyrics, but just as certainly must not have pleased the real writers, those who – like Don DeLillo, Philip Roth and Haruki Murakami, all possible winners – know the enormous effort that involves writing a novel,” L’Osservatore Romano, a Vatican newspaper, opines.

And even if you don’t agree with the award, you’ve got to celebrate the fact that in the middle of this cesspool of a political campaign, we’re having a debate about worthy literature.

Related Nobel: Nobel laureate Dario Fo, who mocked politics, religion, dies (AP)

  • Mike Worcester
    • Ben

      That was a nice write-up, thanks for sharing the link.

  • Doug

    You can read Dylan’s lyrics and enjoy them. What difference does it make if he chose to sing them?

  • Sure, why not?

  • John

    I’ve said it before “Dylan is from here, but not of here.”

    In trying to figure out if he deserved the prize, the first thing I did was try to find the guidance on what the Nobel committee considers requirements. From their site, this is all I got:

    “As described in Nobel’s will one part was dedicated to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. ”

    So, the question is, has Dylan produced the “most outstanding work in an ideal direction?”

    I think so. Poetry and songwriting are both ideal directions, as far as I’m concerned. I reckon virtually no one has produced “more outstanding” work, in songwriting/poetry (maybe Leonard Cohen). Other languages should be in play too, but I don’t speak any of them, so I can’t go there.

    edit: It’s probably also worth noting that the very first Nobel Prize in Literature went to a poet and essayist, not to a novelist.

  • Jim in RF

    My sense is that its a poor use of the Nobel. Bob Dylan is very, very good at what he did and does. Nobody better. But songwriting is different than prose or fiction — a typical artist writes the material for an album in a few months; a writer takes a year or several for a novel. If its a lifetime achievement award (which the Nobel isn’t), then yes. But otherwise no.

    This isn’t a rip. He is very good and I have shoeboxes of his cassettes in my shop and listen weekly. But its not literature, to me.

    • Kassie

      Better use than when they gave the Peace Prize to Obama.

      And it isn’t prose or fiction, but it is poetry, which is part of literature.

      • DavidG

        Playwrights have won as well: Harold Pinter, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Samuel Beckett,…

        Back to the idea of songs as literature: in Jr High, we analyzed Paul Simon’s “Sound of Silence” as poetry, rather than song

    • Jim in RF

      Ok, I take this back. I read the NY Times article that says the Nobel really is for lifetime achievement, which negates my argument. They also point out how they recognize the convergence between commercial and artistic art.

    • Postal Customer

      Life is sad
      Life is a bust
      All you can do is do what you must
      You do what you must do, and you do it well
      I’ll do it for you, honey baby, can’t you tell?

      That isn’t literature?

      • Jerry

        M. Ward does a great cover of that song

  • Kassie

    The man is a genius:
    Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree
    I want ev’rybody to be free
    But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater
    Move in next door and marry my daughter
    You must think I’m crazy!
    I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba

    And this:
    They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown
    The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town
    Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance
    One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants
    And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go
    As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

  • Jeff

    It’s ok with me. The lyrics have stood the test of time, but I doubt anyone would know who he was if he was just some guy who wrote poetry. Seems like the music and the literature are intertwined. You’d think the Swedes would be partial to ABBA instead.

    • Ugh.

      • Jeff

        You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
        See that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Queen

        Now that’s literature.

        • And now I have that song stuck in my head…

          • Jerry

            If you change your mind, I’m the first in line
            Honey I’m still free
            Take a chance on me
            If you need me, let me know, gonna be around
            If you’ve got no place to go, if you’re feeling down
            If you’re all alone when the pretty birds have flown
            Honey I’m still free
            Take a chance on me
            Gonna do my very best and it ain’t no lie
            If you put me to the test, if you let me try

            I hope that helps

          • They’re in the freaking Rock ‘n Roll Hall of fame.


          • Jerry

            Don’t let them be your Waterloo

          • Joe

            I mean the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame is a joke, for sure, but ABBA are by no means the worst band inducted.

            I mean it is a hall of fame, not a hall of talent, or hall of Bob’s favorites (or Joe’s favorites), and ABBA are one of the most famous and successful bands ever.

          • Thanks…

          • John

            I don’t usually lower myself to name calling, but you’re kind of a jerk face.


  • Jerry

    So ,I guess by some of these people’s reasoning, the Iliad, the Oddyssey, and Beowulf aren’t literature?

    • RBHolb

      You nailed it. A lot of what we call part of our literary canon was spoken or sung, and wasn’t transcribed for centuries (anyone read the Bible lately?)

  • Jay T. Berken

    Bind all of his songs together in a book and call it good.

  • Kurt O

    The opening sentence of Alfred Nobel’s will establishing his namesake prize:

    “The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

    The concept of “preceding year” has been lost. Is Dylan the person who had the greatest impact in literature in 2015? Doubtful at best.

    • Kassie

      You could say that about any of the winners. The chemistry award went to someone who started their work on a molecular machine in 1983. And, from the Nobel site: “The prize is always based on an overall assessment. It’s a life’s work that is rewarded, not individual books.”

      • Kurt O

        The Nobel prizes in sciences are a rats’ nest of intrigue and politics.

        Dmitri Mendeleev, inventor of the periodic table, didn’t win a Nobel prize. The committee rejiggered itself to fix the vote against him because he disagreed with a member’s theories.

        Wallace Carothers, inventor of condensation polymerization to make nylon, didn’t win because he wasn’t nominated by the right chemist.


        Currently John D. Roberts, who was one of the founding fathers of NMR spectroscopy, hasn’t received a Nobel prize even though his work was instrumental (HA!) in advancing organic chemistry. That early work led to the development of MRI. He also insisted on having female grad students in the 1950’s, wrote seminal organic chemistry textbooks and has been the research adviser to dozens of students. He’s 98 years old, so he may not receive a Nobel prize.


        I believe part of the reason molecular machines won is that they have a “sexy science” aura that makes them more interesting to non-scientists. Dylan might be a similar case.

    • John

      I know you retracted your preceding year issue below, but I’m glad they use the whole of a person’s work to determine the winner.

      I think we almost never understand or appreciate the impact of these sort of magnificent, huge, contributions until sometimes many years after they happen. It takes the lens of time before we sort of “get it.”

      Einstein won his prize not for relativity, but for his work on the photoelectric effect, and not until 16 years after he published it. (Relativity was bigger, but there was some technicality that made that discovery ineligible. I don’t recall what off hand.)

      It’s an interesting thing that old Swede started.

  • X.A. Smith

    “There’s nothing we like better than bathing in the reflected glow of
    additional fame heaped on someone who couldn’t wait to get out of

    It’s true that he was eager to leave in the 60s, but as I understand it, he has land here, a house here, and family here, and he spends time here.

  • Postal Customer

    “Say what you will about Bob Dylan, you’ve got to give it up for the song “Hallelujah!” the perfect song for Shrek. #NobelPrize”

    That isn’t Dylan’s song.

    • Jerry

      That’s the joke?

    • Zachary

      My favorite Dylan lyrics:
      Me and Cinderella/putting it all together/we can drive it home/with one headlight//
      Wait… is this the same Dylan?

  • Doug

    You can read Dylan’s lyrics and enjoy them. What difference does it make that he chose to sing them?

  • MarkUp

    It’s surprising, but not shocking. Like you said, he’s a helluva songwriter and worthy of a dozen lifetime achievement awards.

    I stumbled upon this article published a week ago:

    Apparently you can place bets on laureate candidates. They pegged Dylan as a long-shot at 50/1 odds. I’ve never heard of the names on their shortlist:

    – Adonis (Syrian poet, essayist, and translator; 6/1 odds)
    – Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (Kenyan novelist, playwright, short story writer, and essayist; 10/1 odds)
    – Jon Fosse (Norwegian novelist and playwright; 20/1 odds)
    – Ko Un (South Korean poet; 20/1 odds)

    I wouldn’t trust the average American’s taste in literature; we’re the nation that put “50 Shades” on a the NYT’S best seller list for 28 straight weeks.
    It was interesting to note the last American awarded the prize in Literature was Toni Morrison in 1993; would you put her and Dylan in the same category? I guess we’ll have to now…

  • Zachary

    I once trolled a Dylan loving friend by saying “As much as I love Jimi Hendrix’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’ I like Bob’s cover of it much better.”
    That being said, I do think Dylan deserves all the accolades heaped upon him, but Literature? There should be better category.

  • MrE85

    I’m late to the Dylan bandwagon, but I like the fact that he’s always trying something new. Sometimes it’s awful (Christmas album), other times it’s genius, like “Modern Times.” So in a word, yes, he earned it.

    • Kassie

      Shut up. It is the best Christmas Album ever. It is hilarious.

      • MrE85

        Oh, yeah? They should have given Obama TWO Peace Prizes. (ducks)

    • Postal Customer

      Oh what a cliche. It’s a great album.

  • ec99

    I guess the committee forgave him for going electric.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    This controversy reflects another from 84 years ago. If I remember the story correctly, the Pulitzer Prize committee decided to award the Drama prize to “Of Thee I Sing” a musical by the Brothers Gershwin with the book by well know playwrights George S Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. The prize names Kaufman, Ryskind and Ira Gershwin. The controversy in this case was not that there was one too few Gershwins named but one too many. Purists felt that the book could receive the prize but the songs shouldn’t be included. The committee held that the lyrics were as important as the spoken words in the show and Ira Gershwin should be included. The story as I remember it is that Ira often stated that the recognition he received for that award should be shared with his brother, because the music and lyrics go together. (Which was certainly the case for all of their collaborations.)