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Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize in Literature

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On Thursday, Oct. 13, it was announced that 2016’s Nobel Prize in Literature would go to American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. Both praise and condemnation of the award began to quickly spread across the internet, as seemingly everyone who had ever heard a Dylan song gleefully took the opportunity to talk about news that didn’t involve our hellish presidential campaign.

A wide range of authors tweeted their opinions, among them Salman Rushdie, a perennial favorite for the award. “From Orpheus to Faiz” he wrote, “song and poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.” Author Hari Kunzru was less enthusiastic in his response, and tweeted “This feels like the lamest Nobel win since they gave it to Obama for not being Bush.”

Unlike the vast majority of artistic awards, the Pulitzer committee does not release a short list or long list, making accurate predictions of the winner incredibly difficult. This means every Nobel winner is something of a surprise, but few awards have been as shocking in recent memory as Dylan’s. His victory was the first for an American since Toni Morrison was given the award in 1993, and though there were rumblings that an American might win this year, it seemed more likely that an author such as Joyce Carol Oates or Phillip Roth would at last receive the prize.

Dylan’s victory is shocking in part because it requires a reworking of conventional thought as to what constitutes “literature.” Though Dylan has authored an autobiography in 2004, Chronicles, and a book of experimental prose poems in 1971, Tarantula, it seems clear that the award was primarily given for his song lyrics. In the Nobel Prize press release, the committee defended their choice by saying Dylan “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Dylan’s victory is also shocking because he is so universally known. One would be hardpressed to find someone who hadn’t at least heard of Bob Dylan, but few people could tell you who Svetlana Alexievich, or Patrick Modiano are, even after their recent (2014 and 2015) Nobel Prize wins. This raises more questions about the role of the Nobel committee. Should their goal be to raise consciousness about talented authors whose work might otherwise be largely ignored by the general populace, or should they reward artists who have made a significant impact on popular culture and already received numerous accolades?

Most shocking of all, at least to media outlets, has been the prize winner’s own silence on the matter. The notoriously reclusive musician has not answered any of the Swedish Academies phone calls, nor has he made any public comment on the award. His website briefly displayed the sentence “winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature” on a page advertising his new book of collected lyrics, but it was quickly removed after the media picked up on it.

Dylan has not made a secret of his aversion to awards- he once said “having these colossal accolades and titles, they get in the way.” However his lack of a response to this accolade in particular is nearly unprecedented. If he declines the award, he will be the first person since Jean Paul Sartre to reject the Nobel Prize for Literature.

On Saturday, Oct. 22,the first unofficial condemnation of Dylan by the Swedish Academy came from member Per Wastberg who called Dylan’s behavior “impolite and arrogant” in an interview with Swedish Newspaper Dagens Nyheter. In a statement made the same day to The New York Times, Sara Danius, Secretary of the the Swedish Academy said “this is Mr. Wastberg’s private opinion and is not to be taken as the official standpoint of the Swedish Academy.”

Dylan’s award is likely to spark debate for some time, especially if he maintains his silence. Some may criticize the selection committee, but critics must admit that in choosing the well known musician they’ve succeeded in making the esteemed award feel relevant to a whole new swath of the public.  

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