The Nobel Prize in Literature is notorious for disconcerting the public and the press, but today it blindsided us in a whole new way. Honoring Bob Dylan for what the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, described as the work of “a great poet in the English-speaking tradition” will surely please many more people than the prize usually does. But plenty of literary types feel that an entire galaxy of print authors has just been snubbed in favor of touting an already-famous rock star.
Selecting Dylan for this year’s prize constitutes a wild-card muddling of the Nobel’s brand identity. Most critics aren’t especially enamored of the prize, summoning as it does the memory of so many October mornings spent making the humiliating admission to your editor that you’ve never heard of, let alone read, someone who’s just been declared one of the towering geniuses on your beat. That, as the world now sees it, is the Nobel’s job: reproaching parochial Anglo-Americans for their ignorance of poets and novelists across the globe, authors our publishers haven’t even bothered to translate because we’re all so obsessed with the new Jonathan Franzen novel. When Danius praised Dylan to reporters for “reinventing himself constantly, creating a new identity,” she spoke another kind of foreign language, the language of celebrity, in which an artist’s persona is as important a creative endeavor as the work he produces. The Nobel Prize in Literature is supposed to be against all that.
Some factions of the book world have regarded the Nobel’s alleged obscurantism as perverse, a wrongheaded (and probably P.C.) repudiation of the literary establishment’s ability to justly distribute acclaim. The biographer Blake Bailey has been, over the past few years, a reliable denouncer of the academy for overlooking one of his subjects, Philip Roth, although this time around, while still a bit disgruntled, he seems more content with the choice than others. That’s because Dylan, by all appearances, rates high in the same circles that view Roth as the obvious choice for the honor: baby boomer men. He’s not DeLillo or Roth, but he’s in the same ballpark of artistic idols. Choosing Chinese novelist Mo Yan in 2012 was an outrage (“Mo Yan my ass. #Rothscrewedagain,” Bailey tweeted), but Dylan represents an improvement, a falling into line.
Even more than most literary awards, the Nobel Prize is concocted of smoke and mirrors. It comes with a handsome payout, it’s true, but hardly anyone ever talks about that. The literary world is governed by two economies: sales and prestige. The Nobel, by long tradition, presides over the latter. A few earnest Westerners may have sought out Mo’s books four years ago, but (unlike, say, the Pulitzer) the Nobel has seldom won a significant audience here for a previously unknown author. Prestige almost never translates into cash, but to writers, it still means a lot. Best-selling authors fume and stew over their inability to win the sort of intangible esteem that the Nobel bestows.
Like Tinkerbell, prestige only exists as long as you decide to believe in it. Shift to another position, look at things in a different light, and it’s ridiculous to fulminate over Roth or any other author being passed over for an honor whose own stature is pretty arbitrary. (Who died and made the Swedish Academy the master of world literature, anyway? And don’t say Alfred Nobel.) Anything as rich and manifold as the art made from written words can only be diminished by this obsession with rankings and supremacy. The very idea that certain writers are owed a Nobel is fundamentally anti-literary.
So, alas, is giving the prize to Bob Dylan. I’ve no beef with the guy (although I’m not really a fan), but this year’s announcement arrives like a redundant coronation of someone who seems smart enough to resent his own idolizers. It does nothing to remind readers of something that the Nobel, for all its annoying self-importance, has striven doggedly to assert: that beyond the comfy confines of full-page book reviews and top-10 lists lies a world of potential treasure. It never hurt anyone to venture outside and look around.