Back in 2016, a strange headline started to make waves around news outlets throughout the world. And it said that the well-known and beloved musician Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And the first question that popped out in the minds of many was ‘How is this possible?’ Are music lyrics literature? If so, what sets Bob Dylan’s lyrics apart from those of other musicians?
The announcement felt like an anticlimactic decision, mainly since all the bets were on the famous Japanese author Haruki Murakami, who’s been a favorite to win the prize for many years. 2016 was the first year when the award didn’t go to an actual writer, but rather to someone who is known for his sound and rhythm just as much as for his lyrical content.
The Academy gave an ambiguous explanation to as why the artist won the prize. And a lot of voices welcomed this decision, as they’ve seen it as a change of pace, and a shift in the right direction. Many have said that lyrics are indeed literature since they are words that carry a heavy emotional load, just like any novel, play or poem. They even argued that the first poems in the world were songs sung around fires.
However, an even more significant number of critics said that he was not worthy of the distinction. They reminded the Academy that authors like Don DeLillo and Philip Roth have had longer and more impressive literary careers and that they have been overlooked by the Swedish prize committee. They emphasized that song lyrics are nothing without music and that they fall flat when read and not sung. Consequently, they should belong to a different art category.
Meanwhile, the artist himself remained silent. He is well known for his reclusiveness and for the fact that he likes to keep his life private from the ruthless public eye. And this angered people even more, as it seemed somewhat arrogant. He didn’t even reply to the Swedish Academy when they politely asked him to come collect his prize.
In the end, he did reply by saying winning left him speechless, but that he won’t be able to come and receive the prize from the hands of the King of Sweden, as he had previous commitments. This was another blow even to people who’ve supported him throughout this controversial period.
The answer to the initial question cannot be simplified and is subjective. It matters if you consider lyrics to be literature or not. But objectively, there aren’t many arguments that prove the committee took the right decision. Some say that Patti Smith, who sang at the ceremony, should have won because her lyrics are much more meaningful and complex.