Bob Dylan has had detractors and naysayers going all the way back to the time he “went electric”, so it’s no surprise that a vocal minority is crying that he does not deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature. What does surprise me a little bit is the reason some are giving. They’re saying he doesn’t deserve it because songwriting isn’t literature. I had thought the world had become comfortable calling him a poet (I think of him as more of a storyteller than poet, but no matter). If Dylan doesn’t deserve the award on the grounds that songwriting isn’t literature then we’re back to saying he isn’t a poet either.
Literature as an art form using only written language, without the aid of visuals, music or sound is a difficult art to practice. Fiction, for example, offers unique challenges. You don’t have all that “license” that poets have and are expected to use. It’s difficult to experiment in fiction. Mostly, it’s exceedingly difficult to use ordinary language itself as an artistic medium. Giving the Nobel to a songwriter is not fair to people like Don DeLillo, some have argued, when there are other avenues for awarding musicians. No, it’s not fair. We should all be multi-talented, gifted not only in language but in rhythm, melody and musicianship as well. Of course, if you do have musical gifts then you can afford to scrimp a little on the language. You can use voice, in the form of song, and other musical elements to supply emotional components. The literary part might suffer but it’s compensated for by the musical part. So maybe songwriting utilizes some of the attributes of literature, but isn’t literature per se.
Bob Dylan hasn’t written any tunes like Yesterday or Do You Know the Way to San Jose. You don’t whistle Blowin in the Wind. Without the lyrics Blowin in the Wind doesn’t even exist. With the lyrics it’s not only a song, it’s literature. You can look at the words all by themselves, and it’s literature.
Is Bob Dylan then an exception to a rule? Can we call his work literature and not that of any–indeed every–other songwriter? I think we cannot. Songwriting is indeed literature. Much of it is poor literature, sure, but the world is also choking with terrible novels and dreadful poems as well. If words were a more or less disposable part of a song, then why did Burt Bacharach need Hal David? Read Bacharach’s memoir and you’ll know why. He might describe a beautiful woman by saying she “had colossal tits“. It’s a damn good thing he didn’t write his own lyrics.
I’m making a poor argument simply because I don’t have the will, desire or stomach to push it, and I don’t wish to be academic. I don’t know who I would convince anyway, and I don’t care. But if the basic definition of literature is language art written down, then I know that songwriters have spoken to me personally as powerfully as poets and novelists have. I could grab examples out of the air all day long. Here are just a few:
My list of ten favorite American poets includes two songwriters.
Everyone has a personal story about a song. Here’s one of mine: The song Any World (That I’m Welcome To) by Steely Dan has entered my bones not just because it’s fun to listen to, but because of its words. I escaped an unhappy childhood home in a desperate act of survival and never went back. Any world that I’m welcome to is better than the one I come from. Those words have become a part of my life. I practice the art of written poetry, but it is the work of songwriters–songs like this one–that I can quote verbatim all day long.
As a teenager and just beginning to understand this thing called literature, I discovered Hemingway and Randy Newman at about the same time. I still think very highly of Hemingway (who won a Nobel, by the way). But it occurred to me then that some of Newman’s lyrics were as brilliantly written as Hemingway’s short stories. I am still of that opinion. It’s only my opinion. But listen to these snapshots of lives captured in a few perfectly chosen words.
OK (one argument runs) but DeLillo still deserves the award, because people should be encouraged to read books. They don’t need to be encouraged to listen to songs. That may be so. But what of the possible positive effects of Dylan’s award? Young songwriters might get the message that if they take themselves seriously, the world might too. That there might be more to songwriting than twerk-flavored bubblegum. That if they work at it the sky’s the limit. They might even win a Nobel someday.