Of all the authors tipped for the Nobel Prize this year, Bob Dylan was not the one I expected to win. Ladbrokes' favourites were Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Haruki Murakami, and Adonis. But in a surprise announcement, the prize was awarded to the American singer-songwriter 'for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition'.
It's quite a statement from one of the most significant literary prizes in the world. Awarding Dylan the Nobel reflects a shifting establishment perception of what literature is, what it does, and where it can be found. This decision acknowledges that not only novels, plays, and written poems are literature.
The power of Dylan's lyrics comes from the fact that they are precisely that -- they are part of his songs. Awarding the prize to someone who is primarily a songwriter is a welcome move, as it appreciates that lyrics are literature too.
Sara Danius, the Nobel permanent secretary, compared Dylan to Homer and Sappho, and rightly so. There are long histories of oral, poetic traditions across the world that often get forgotten in favour of written forms. Homer and Sappho -- as well as the troubadours, and the Beowulf poet -- wrote poems to be performed.
This bardic tradition may be harder for us to see as little evidence of the musical elements of these practices survives, but that doesn't mean they weren't there. Although the written forms survive now, it's the sung forms that these authors' contemporaries would have heard.
The same is true today, with audiences usually far more familiar with lyricists' songs than their written work. Dylan's published poetry, the 1971 collection Tarantula, is very little known -- but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't recognise "Blowin' in the Wind". Likewise for Dylan's contemporary, Leonard Cohen, both songwriter and published poet.
More than this, music -- and songs in particular -- can have significant political power, as expressions of identity, of protest, and of oppression. Political prisoners sang songs in concentration camps to hold on to some sense of their identity in the face of death and persecution. Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" was in protest against the 1963 murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. And artists such as Christina Aguilera have been played as a means of psychological torture in US detention camps, used as a form of attack on religious identity.
It seems especially pertinent to acknowledge the relationship between songs and politics after this week, when Betsy McCaughey quoted lyrics from Beyoncé's "Formation" to defend Donald Trump. McCaughey seems to have got confused somewhere down the line -- lyrics about a consensual date are not comparable to boasts about sexual assault. But it's not the first time "Formation" has made headlines. After Beyoncé's Super Bowl performance, more insightful commentators than McCaughey pointed to "Formation"'s association with black rights and resistance movements. Whether or not they've been completely misunderstood, songs are part of our political discourse. People do listen to songwriters -- their lyrics matter.
After giving Svetlana Alexievich the prize last year, awarding Dylan the Nobel this year implies that literature can't rest content with having exceptionally crafted sentences, or beautifully structured plot twists. Literature needs to do more.
Dylan's songs have been civil rights anthems. They've been sung at anti-war protests. His words made their way into hearts and minds, helping to shape and express the opinions of millions. What more can you ask of literature than that?Suggest a correction