The Nobel Prize for Literature: Prestigious Award, or Complicated Edifice of Irony?

Ah, it’s that time of year again, when the literature fanatics squirm from their holes in the dusty backrooms of universities and internet forums everywhere to cry about the newest addition to the pantheon of Nobel Literature Prize winners.  What’s that?  You didn’t realize that this was a specific time of year?  That’s because it isn’t; it’s only getting attention this year because of the particular choice in laureate.

But before that, what even is the Nobel Prize for Literature?  It’s supposed to be an important and prestigious award for a lifetime of contributions to the literary enrichment of culture—although, where once it stood for the enrichment of Western culture, now it stands for some vague sense of worldly culture that even academics find difficult to adequately define.  A brief glance at the complete list of laureates is enough to give one a decent approximation of the decline—the early seventies marking the event horizon of the romanticism of the Old World giving way to the plunge of the democratized mob-rule of artistic chaos shrouded in freedom and appeals to the common man.

The list is wrought with missteps.  Many of the so-called high-modernists failed to make the grade, for instance, while one-hit-wonders like Pearl S. Buck managed to win one before even her fiftieth birthday.  Maybe Buck is something of an outlier; she reached fame only for The Good Earth, which was a contemporary hit but, in retrospect, has been largely brushed over by time.  It lacked staying power, and at the time Buck was awarded the prize, she’d written less than a third of what her entire published corpus would come to include by the end of her life.  For what was designed as a lifetime achievement award, her championship sticks out like a sore thumb.

Or what about Henri Bergson, winning in 1927 for his contributions to philosophy?  Impressive, to be sure, and certainly more than this writer will ever contribute—and as continental figures go, he was definitely among the least-offensive.  But worthy of what is allegedly the most prestigious award for achievement in the field?  Seems questionable, at best.  But no use crying over spilled milk; that was 90 years ago.

And certainly, we have ample amounts of snubs, as any long-standing awards academy is going to have.  Where is Joyce—who destroyed the literary credentials he had at the time with Finnegan’s Wake and then left countless English PhDs to reconstruct it for him for the next hundred years—or Proust—who was perhaps too French and rambling but not quite chic enough to slide in there after Bergson demonstrated that these things aren’t necessarily game-killers—or (gasp) Tolstoy?  What about Musil, or Schmidt, or Chekhov?  And what is Sartre even doing on that list?  Ask anyone about anything that claims to appeal to the definitive last word on any subject, and the complaints of this nature could go on forever.

So yes, predictably, we now get to Bob Dylan.

I like Dylan’s music.  As pop goes, it’s pretty good.  Accusations of folk heroism aside, the crafty bastard has maintained his smugness, animosity, and sublimity through the decades and has consistently applied a cloak of irony within clever lyrical asides all the while.  His older tunes dropped more references per verse than Tarantino does in a whole film, using the references to build up whatever politically-charged point he was looking to get across at the time.  His blend of modernist intertextualism and narrative format made for an amusing mishmash of common-man dialect and pseudointellectual pretentiousness that the hip youngsters of the time found irresistible—and, naturally, still do today.  He made popular music merely by being himself, not unlike the fanboys he had all over the world—most notably Bowie.

But that was all it was: popular music.

I’ve seen some of the more amusing criticisms of Dylan’s win circulating around the internet.  While the defenders of the move end up reading like the fawning of fanboys rallying behind their presumptive poet-idol, the critics likewise read mostly like the skewed and cherry-picking detractors disgusted with the academy but lacking the appropriate footing to really mount a reasonable attack.  It’s six and one-half dozen the other, and I probably fall into that category myself.  Granted, I’m more than willing to hoist up my own alternatives—an American hasn’t even won the award since Toni Morrison, back in 1993 (a laureate who, for her part, was also talented but seemed to lack the writing chops of her predecessors in the awards).  With a track record like that, we can expect another serious American nominee in about twenty years—maybe then Taylor Swift will be eligible, and we can a more cultured, sophisticated repeat of her 2009 VMAs acceptance speech. (Yo Bob, I’m really happy for you, and Imma let you finish, but—)

The likes of Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, and Thomas Pynchon remain undeserving of the academy’s recognition, despite displaying writing chops easily surpassing the present laureate’s in breadth of knowledge and depth of visceral feeling—to say nothing of the categorical distinctions in genre.  William Gass or William Vollmann have a greater chance at the shot, given the slightly off-kilter, more buried recognition for their works granting them an edifice of credentials more likely to resonate with the ironically elitist hipsterlectual tendencies of the academy of late.  Although, where McCarthy, Roth, and Pynchon are all just about in their eighties (Pynchon being the youngest of the lot at 79), Gass is more likely to kick the bucket before all of them.  Maybe Vollmann has a chance, but who cares?

Heck, maybe they should just give it to Zizek next year.  As a joke.

But back to Dylan.  Maybe people like me are upset because he’s already a popular monolith of contemporary music, having been someone who literally shaped it from the ground up.  Does that deserve a literary prize?  Well, no; that’s pop music, not poetry.  It makes about as much sense as the Grammys awarding prizes for slam poetry or beatnik posturing under the banner of ‘experimentalism’.  Or maybe I’m upset because it’s a pretty obvious snub of the actual American writers who are more than likely going to be dead by the time the academy considers another American for the prize, but I’m not sure that’s really it either.  Like I said, I’m not one much to care for the award itself; and the future merits of these writers have to some degree already been deiced by their present impact; a Nobel citation might help, but it’s far from the deciding factor in cementing their legacies.  Or maybe, really, I’m upset because, like so many other things, the mere nomination of this laureate implies a sense of cultural rot at the heart of the West wherein the everyman folk art of the Beat Generation is so easily confused, conflated, and then leveled to be congruent-by-consensus to the high-minded and strenuous suffering of the artists of old.  It’s the sort of thinking that places Damien Hirst in the same category as Michelangelo, or Samuel Delaney under the same heading as Nathaniel Hawthorne, or the Beatles grouped in with Franz Schubert.  When anything that can be popularly accessed and imitated inundates the culture, a democratic process of leveling the Greats down to the level of mere commoners is inevitable.  If this stuff is all merely self-expression, what makes your crude finger painting any better than mine?

Another laureate wrote some famous lines about the Devil questioning Man’s creations—it’s pretty, but is it Art?—and they stood in context as testaments to meaning and doubt over Man’s efforts in the world.  But today, we live at the tail end of a civilization that built cathedrals, composed symphonies, wrote epics, created the concept of freedom, devised the rule of law, and civilized most of the known the world.  Today, I think, in failing to see the difference between the average man’s suffering and the mastery of an artist, and in fact, in our effort to combine the two, to suggest that the average man can pursue such mastery in a world where leisure has become a synonym for laziness, we have hamstrung the very culture that made the West so great in the first place.  Now, we can only create what is pretty, because as our world has shifted; our Art has lost its substance.

This particular laureate should force any writer alive today to ask that same question of their own work.  Dylan’s prose was good, but was it good enough for the prize?  Is the prize worth the prestige alleged do it?

Maybe it was a ploy to get the prize relevant again.  Maybe they’re thinking hey, let’s promote a legitimate celebrity with a lifetime of songwriting accolades and recognition in the hopes that more people will be drawn to appreciate our academy and maybe look into some of the other people we’ve promoted in the past.  Yeah, that’s it.

That makes total sense.

Because nobody uses award ceremonies purely for the aggrandizement of their personal idols.

That has to be it.

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