Last week Bob Dylan became the first western songwriter to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, with the committee citing his “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Joining such illustrious names as Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, and Ernest Hemingway as a laureate. He was seen as an outside bet for years by those who claimed to know, and now he can claim to have his lyrics regarded as art by the highest authority.
But how? How did he win a Nobel Prize?
Each Nobel prize has an organization in charge of giving it out, for the prize in literature it is the Swedish Academy. Every year the Academy sends out requests for nominations to thousands of individuals. These include former winners, members of the academy, literature professors from around the world, and the leaders of writers organizations. These nominations are reduced from hundreds to five in two months, and then several months are spent debating the finalist’s merits. A person can only win if they are a finalist at least once before.
Bob Dylan was able to win by having each one of those requirements met, and then being seen as a better choice than the other finalists; which is no small task. This has not gone without controversy, however. French writer Pierre Assouline suggests that giving Dylan the prize is “contemptuous of writers”. Scottish author Irvine Welsh dismissed it as a nostalgia award by old hippies.
The literature prize is no stranger to controversy. The tastes of the original committee head lead to the rejection of such authors as Tolstoy and Mark Twain in favor of people few have either read or heard of. Every Noble prize has had controversy, failed to give awards to deserving individuals, or simply given ones to people who didn’t deserve one, but the literature award perhaps suffered the most from this in the early years.
Famously, Jean Paul-Sartre refused to accept his award on the grounds that he rejected all awards. Boris Pasternak, the author of Dr. Zhivago, was forced to refuse his prize by the Soviet government. It is impossible to be nominated when dead, so authors like Franz Kafka were never considered.
Bob Dylan has become the first American in two decades to win the Nobel Prize in literature, and only the second songwriter to win the prize at all. This is no small feat, but he will also join the list of controversial winners whose merits we will debate for some time.