Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Is a Joke—Even He Thinks So

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By Harry Phibbs | 4:29 am, October 19, 2016

So Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He doesn’t seem particularly pleased about it. He gave a concert in Las Vegas on the evening the accolade was announced but made no comment. The Nobel committee has tried to get hold of him to see if he will pitch up to accept their offering but he is not returning their calls.

Perhaps it is the case that Dylan doesn’t take himself as seriously as some others – such as the Nobel committee – take him. Once, when asked what his songs were about, he  replied: “Some of them are about three minutes and some are about five minutes.”

I once heard a talk from the poetry scholar Professor Sir Christopher Ricks (now of Boston University) offering a high-minded analysis to the lyrics of the Dylan hit Lay, Lady, Lay. Ricks reflected that the call to “lay across my big brass bed” was rather direct as chat-up lines go. It was all quite good-humoured – though I don’t know if the talk was intended to be a parody.

Anyway, the power of Dylan’s work is surely for the songs to be left as songs. Reading out and analysing the lyrics means their force drains away.

Dylan’s Nobel award was misguided for two reasons. First of all, he has no need for recognition. As Leonard Cohen said it’s “like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”

Secondly, pop lyrics can be of outstanding merit of their kind, when judged against other pop lyrics. To put them alongside great works of literature, or judge
them against Shakespeare or the King James Bible, is just silly.

There have been other misguided Nobel choices. In 2009 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Barack Obama. He hadn’t achieved anything to deserve it at the time – nominations closed after he had been in office for 11 days. Nor did he go on to merit it retrospectively. All he has done is to make well-rounded speeches while the United States has retreated from its international responsibilities.

Geir Lundestad, the Nobel Secretary at the time, later acknowledged Obama’s award was a mistake.

The 2004 Literature Prize went to a left-wing Austrian writer called Elfriede Jelinek. The Swedish literary historian Knut Ahnlund resigned from the panel which made the decision on the grounds that Jelinek’s works were “a mass of text shovelled together without artistic structure.”

Then in 1994 the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was given the Peace Prize. This was despite his being unrepentant over his crimes. It could be argued that giving political encouragement to negotiate with Israel as part of the Oslo Peace Accords justified it.

However, I suspect the prospect of it was less interesting to Arafat than of getting his hands on the Palestinian tax revenue. As a result of the deal, Israel deposited tax receipts on goods purchased by Palestinians into Arafat’s personal bank account. Eventually he accumulated over a billion dollars.

Lundestad recalls Arafat watching an episode of the Tom and Jerry cartoon in his Oslo hotel room with other Palestine Liberation Organisation members before the ceremony. “It was made very clear that they intended to watch until the end,” Lundestad said.

The Nobel Prizes should not be chosen as a wheeze to maximise publicity by seeking controversy. They should go to individuals whose huge contribution in the category for which they are being given an award is beyond dispute. In recent years it has all become a bit of a circus. A few spectacularly ill-judged awards have sadly undermined the many others to worthy winners.

If Dylan snubs the ceremony which the Nobel committee has invited him to, perhaps they will start to appreciate this.