Tuesday, December 13, 2016

No Bells for Dylan?

Stephen King and Salman Rushdie say "yay". But Gary Shteyngart and Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting, Dockers) say "nay". Jodi Picault says "huh?" And their respective fans say, why not Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Haruki Murakami?

And all I want to say is that the Swedish Academy's “ill-conceived nostalgia wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile-gibbering hippies” (Welsh) shows that they understand American culture better than a lot of Americans, and literary culture better than many writers.

Prizes like the Nobel should not go to writers just because they are good. They are supposed to have done something with their work, brought about a cultural revolution or at least a better world through their gift of writing. Dylan has done all that and more. He took something that had not been considered an art form since at least the great English and Scottish ballads collected by Frances James Child, if not since ancient times, and he made it an art form and set a new standard by which the writing of lyrics is judged.

In the process he influenced an entire culture, becoming, even if unwillingly, the bard of an entire generation and the poet of American popular culture. Because Dylan wrote songs like "Gates of Eden" others would find the straightjacket of "straight" songwriting lifted, and John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and so many others could exercise their extraordinary talents in a way that might not have happened if Dylan had not set the stage for it.

Dylan prepared the audience for the idea that poetic freedom belonged to the songwriter as to any other writer. Now the lyrics were not just a backdrop for musical creativity, of which there has always been plenty, but an art form in themselves that had to be listened to, aesthetically appreciated and intellectually interpreted. It is really hard to overestimate how deeply this penetrated into the culture, knocking down walls between high and low, popular and "fine" art in the same way that Andy Warhol did; and is anyone still questioning whether Warhol is really a great artist?

Dylan also stands at a great cultural nexus, a meeting of the folk tradition, Beat culture, the antiwar and Civil Rights movements and the hippie generation. He is just there, wherever there might be, the center of it all. That is why he is such an important figure. Not because he wrote a lot of songs, many of which at least in his early work) utilize existing folk and country song melodies; because he channeled he spirit of so many cultural trends and made many of them matter more through his lyrics.

And let's not forget Tarantula, which among other things pioneered the concept of microfiction before microfiction was a thing; and the Chronicles, Vol. 1, which is probably the backdrop to a more aesthetic as well as more personal turn in rock memoirs, before Patti Smith and Keith Richards and many others got on that bandwagon.

There is nothing funny or overstated or off base about Dylan getting the Nobel Prize for literature; what is pretty funny is the sour grapes and snide comments from people whose contributions, not to be slighted in themselves, are barely a shadow of Dylan's work. That is not to say that authors like Don DeLillo are not deserving of such a prize; that all depends on who else is in the running. Plenty of great authors have failed to receive a Nobel Prize, and even more will fail to do so since the committee's horizon has been expanded beyond Europe and the Americas and now includes writers from all over the world. Those who do will have to stand out more. DeLillo, Murakami, Alice Munro who got it in 1913, they stand out. But none moreso than Dylan.

Gary, you are probably not in the running, and your diagnosis is a bit off: it is not hard to read books, it is hard to listen to funny authors pouting. Irvine, compared with your gallbladder those Swedish prostates don't bother me much. Jodi, sure, you can get a Grammy, just set your books to music as well as Dylan set his music to lyrics. A cinch.

Let's keep in mind that the prize has not always gone to writers of fiction or poetry. The second Nobel Prize in Literature went to a historian. Several times the prize went to a philosopher. Quite a few went to playwrights. Dylan correctly asks whether Shakespeare imagined that in his plays he was creating "literature". Probably not, he surmises. Point well taken.

Enough second-guessing already. Something great has happened, a deserving artist has gotten the recognition he deserved, in whatever form it came. We knew that Dylan was world-changing and life-changing and now the world knows it too. His acceptance letter is more proof of that, a text of deeply moving and intellectually deep observations about himself, literature and Nobel Prizes. If he gets a prize for his artwork no one should regret that either. Ring them bells, as Gordon Lightfoot put it. A towering figure in every way.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no telling who that it's naming
For the loser now will be later to win
Cause the times they are a-changing