When the Swedish Academy announced this morning that Bob Dylan was their choice for this year’s Literature Prize, people went crazy in exactly the ways you’d expect: his die-hard fans were jubilant; many writers and literature-lovers expressed open dismay; and others jumped into the fray to defend the award and call out the naysayers for snobbery and narrow-mindedness.
I think one can be nonplussed or even disappointed by this decision and remain innocent of elitism or parochialism or of suggesting Dylan is anything less than awesome. Sure, song lyrics are poetry, which makes it literature. Still, I don’t think the expectation that the award go to people who’ve spent their lives making, you know, books, as their principal occupation, is necessarily misplaced or snobby.
I am agnostic on the merits or lack thereof of the Dylan decision because I’m too busy feeling both disappointed and relieved, again, that Haruki Murakami didn’t win, an ambivalence I talked about in this essay that appeared at Lit Hub yesterday.
I’ve decided to just have fun with this Dylan thing. In fact, I applaud the Academy for thinking outside the box. Really, their flexibility about what constitutes “literature” and “writer” should extend to all the Nobel categories.
In that spirit, here are my alternative picks for all of this year’s Nobels:
- Physics: Architect Frank Gehry, because it’s all a matter of physics, the way those buildings actually manage to stay up. Runner-up: Glass sculptor Dale Chihuly because—hello? Serious physics at play.
- Medicine: Film director and animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose breathtaking work has improved mental health around the world and made endurable many sick days with small children.
- Economics: Photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose haunting black and white images do more to illustrate systems of inequality than tomes by actual economists.
- Chemistry: Artist Gerhard Richter, because chemists may know stuff about chemicals, but visual artists actually do stuff with chemicals. Runner-up: Glass sculptor Dale Chihuly because—hello? Serious chemistry there.
- Peace: Composer Philip Glass, because—come on, he obviously deserves a Nobel.
- Literature: Bazillionaire Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling. Because: Why not? Children’s literature and popular literature are literature too. Plus she’s an upstanding global and literary citizen. Runner-up: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for using her words to such bad-ass effect.
You’re welcome to leave a comment with your own awardees below.
Meanwhile, I think we’ll all survive this latest round of Nobel decisions. As newly minted laureate Bob Dylan famously said: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
A second to your idea about Philip Glass. I’m listening to Hydrogen Jukebox right now and those of us in Northern California have the chance to hear some of his music at the Mondavi Center in February and an opera, Les Enfants Terribles, presented by Opera Parallele in May in San Francisco.
Thanks for reading! We recently saw “Koyaanisqatsi” on campus & it was wonderful.
I know you’ve commented on Murakami’s writing before, so I clicked over to read your longer essay on Literary Hub. I have to say, I agree with you completely. I started reading his books in the early 90s, even going to Little Tokyo to find his earlier shorter novels (Like “Pinball, 1973”). But I think his novel writing did get sloppier. I gave up on the longer works altogether after “The Windup Bird Chronicle.” It struck me that at some point, he had ceased “writing” and had become a “writer,” and that I lost interest in what he had to say.
You mentioned Kenzaburo Oe as the last Japanese recipient of the Nobel. I recall that somewhere, he criticized Murakami as everything wrong with contemporary Japanese novelists (for shallowness, I believe). Too bad. I still love “A Wild Sheep Chase.”
Thanks for commenting, Scott! You’re a better Murakami reader than I am–even Wild Sheep Chase bewildered me. Even some avowed Murakami fans have told me they feel the same way when they read his novels, but just don’t mind the gaps (as it were) or appreciate the inconclusive & porous narratives as somehow true-to-life. Thanks for reading & taking the time to comment!
THE TIMES ARE INDEED A-CHANGIN’…
I appreciate Naomi’s suggestions for alternative Nobels, and I would second at least one of them — Hayao Miyazaki, whose films are a delight, though I would nominate him for next year’s literature prize rather than for medicine. This year’s literature prizewinner seems entirely appropriate to me — as one website says, “Alfred Nobel’s original language about the prize took an open-minded view of what qualified as literature: according to the Nobel Prize’s website, he specified that the award could be given to any ‘writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value.'” Bob Dylan has continued to write in the same song-writing tradition as his first inspiration, Woody Guthrie, and between them they have contributed vastly to the body of American song.
I began listening to Bob Dylan in 1962 with his first two albums. In 1963 I went to the Newport Folk Festival, whose biggest star was Joan Baez. I heard Dylan tagging along behind her for various events, and when she went onstage for the festival’s grand finale, she put him beside her as an equal, to the initial puzzlement of many in the audience. She later recorded a double album singing a wide range of his lyrics — but he was for many years the best singer of his own songs. (In some of his more recent albums and concerts, he has deliberately sung in a very unappealing voice. Perhaps as a psychologist I should offer an analysis of his reasons, but he hasn’t given me an opportunity to question him.)
“The Swedish Academy did not reveal a shortlist of the candidates it was considering for the Nobel; according to The New York Times, there was speculation that it might go to Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya), Adonis (Syria), Haruki Murakami (Japan), Philip Roth (America), and Don DeLillo (America).” I haven’t read the Kenyan or Syrian writers; the remaining three haven’t been nearly as rewarding to me as a reader as Bob Dylan has been to me over the years in his lyrical productivity.
Thanks for your essay on Haruki Murakami, Naomi. I had assumed my disappointment in reading him was mainly my problem as lacking in a good grounding of Japanese literature, but maybe not.
Alan, I always look forward to your wonderfully intelligent & informative & witty comments, and you haven’t disappointed! Thanks for your sharing your take on the Nobel Lit Prize generally & Dylan in particular, especially your own personal memories of listening to him & seeing him live.