Thu | Jan 18, 2018

Annie Paul | Bob Dylan’s Nobel

Published:Wednesday | October 19, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Annie Paul

"An ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies" is what the irreverent Scottish writer, Irvine Welsh, called the award of the Nobel in Literature coveted by almost every prose writer and poet alive to Bob Dylan, globally celebrated American singer and songwriter. The award has set off a barrage of responses on social media and elsewhere.

For the first time since Salman Rushdie's novel was banned and a fatwa declared against him, 'literature' and what it constitutes has occupied the global timeline front and centre for a few days.

As someone who thinks mainstream print media in Jamaica needs to give more space to discussing literature and art, I'm delighted that we're taking a few minutes to argue over subjects like writing, poetry, popular culture, lyricism and orality versus written texts.

The problem with Dylan's Nobel is that I can see both sides of it. I've always been one for breaking conventions, and Dylan is in a class of his own, but I also wonder if this will be felt as a kind of death blow to the idea of literature/art as we know it.

Then again, I've only been attacking the notion of an unbridgeable divide between 'high' and 'low' culture forever, so at that level I love the Nobel award to Dylan. On the other hand, as another great American songwriter and singer, Leonard Cohen says, giving Bob Dylan the Nobel is like pinning a medal on Mt Everest. Somewhat redundant and pointless. I also agree with the Facebook commenter who said: "When Bob Dylan woke up today and remembered, oh, yeah, I won the Nobel Prize, I doubt he pinched himself wondering if it was real."




In fact, it seems Bob Dylan is quite underwhelmed at receiving the Nobel in Literature. It is being widely reported that the folk singer is sticking to his non-conformist ways and refusing to comment on the highly touted award. As the UK Guardian reported: "So far the American troubadour has responded with silence since he won the prize on Thursday. He gave a concert in Las Vegas that very night, but made no mention of the accolade. In what may have been a veiled allusion to his long-term reputation for what some have called perversity, and others an admirably dogged persistence in forging his own path, Dylan's set ended with a cover of Frank Sinatra's Why Try to Change Me Now."

You have to admire a man like that. In fact, some are suggesting that the Nobel Committee gave the award not so much to recognise Dylan's extraordinary output as a writer and singer, "but to restore some of the good old image of US by trumping the current-day negativity", as an old friend, Rash Behari Das, put it on Facebook. The Nobel Prize has often been used to make a political point, and it's true that anti-celebrity Bob Dylan is the complete antithesis of Celebrities-r-us Donald Trump.

Chris Hardy summarised it well when he said: "Ask the poets and writers who are against this great award, 'If you were able write fine poetry, play the guitar expertly, turn a tune easily, sing, and know a load of great players, would you put the lot together so your poetry blasts into rooms, pubs, fields, cities, all over the world, so people who hate books, let alone poetry, hear powerful, complex emotions and ideas delivered direct to their ears, or would you just write and try and find a publisher?' Dylan performs his poetry and he really knows how to do it - unlike most poets!"

The final word on the Dylan Nobel goes to the programming director of Trinidad's literary festival Bocas, Nicholas Laughlin: "Literary prizes: brilliant arbiters of talent and achievement, when you agree with their results; otherwise ridiculous, ill-informed, pandering, deluded, or worse. Somehow, literature continues to survive them."

And the final word on everything else goes to former Minister of Security Peter Bunting who won the Internet with the following tweet: @PeterBuntingMP: Not quite what I had in mind when I said we needed divine intervention ... Montague: God picked me to tackle crime.

- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice ( Email feedback to or tweet @anniepaul.