Ever since the Nobel Prize winners have been announced, there’s been a lot of conflicting opinion on the Prize for Literature. Bob Dylan, is not exactly “literature” by any defining paradigms but then again, I suppose, what is literature? The dictionary simply defines it as “written work,” which would expand the definition of literature to outside of novels or plays or poetry, but right to the leaflets you can pick up in a library that tell you about the upcoming literary events! It’s a written work, it’s literature!
As a history, major “literature” has always been something that I’ve regarded as extremely important. In history, literature has been of crucial significance. Most of us have probably learned in school that the building of the printing press seriously changed the game. Martin Luther’s edicts were the triggering point of the reformation. Both Nazi and anti-Nazi propaganda during the WWII were pretty reliant on literature. Historians nowadays can also learn a lot through literature. Be it leaflets, songs (written down), poetry, etc.
This is probably why hearing that Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize didn’t make me think, “wow, how cool! The Nobel prize committee have really gone all out, really thought outside the box!” because of course, songs are literature. And lyrics, in my opinion anyway, are for sure a form of poetry.
For me, the Nobel prize committee “going all out,” would have probably been trying to stay more “inside” the boundaries. Not because I’m conservative about my literature tastes, but because for some reason, the boundaries that define literature, continue to exclude anybody who doesn’t fall into a really narrow margin of the population.
Let’s take a quick look at the statistics of Nobel prize winners, shall we?
The Nobel prize in literature was first handed out in 1901. Ever since 1901 and 2016, only 14 women have won the prize. The in 115 years, 14 women have won this, apparently, global prize. It gets worse.
Of all the Nobel Literature Laureates, 72% have been European. Six Asians have won the prize to date, of those none have been women, Three Africans have won the prize (that’s if you count Toni Morrison, who is African-American), one (Toni Morrison) was a woman.
To break it down by race: three black people have won the prize so far, of those only one has been a woman. Six Latinx have won the prize. Of this, only one has been a woman. There has only been one Arab winner of the prize, and he was not a woman.
All in all, things have been pretty drab for writers who aren’t white, European men. In this climate, giving the Nobel prize award to Bob Dylan is not breaking some great boundary. It’s actually enforcing it, and continuing to keep those who are marginalised in the margins.
Bob Dylan has been one my favourite musicians since I was about 14 years old. His music, with their lyrics, have intrigued, comforted and stimulated me. I had the pleasure of seeing him live at Dublin in 2014, and it was a wonderful experience. He is a wonderful songwriter. When I heard about Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature I was very confused. Firstly, because I personally never considered songwriting to be a form of literature but, as Adiba has pointed out above, literature simply means “written work” and songwriting is just that. I pondered over that for a good while and looked at the statistics for the Nobel Prize Laureates and realized that it is quite exclusive.
Considering that musicians already have the Grammy Award, which includes music composition, as well as songwriting skills, it seems quite unfair to have a musician winning a Nobel Prize in literature. There is already a separate award that only musicians can get. But that is not what bothers me the most. As mentioned above, the exclusion of other ethnicities, and of women, is appalling. There are many wonderful writers who could have benefited from such recognition. Despite Bob Dylan being one of my favourite songwriters, and well deserving of praise and recognition for his lengthy, wonderful and inspiring work, I still think it is important to take the opportunity to shine a light on issues of discrimination against minorities. To shine a light on how awards, the Nobel Prize committee, the media and society values the white male above any other race; even more so above women within those races. It shocks me that in this time and age we still have to have these kinds of conversations, and use such an event to shine a light on the existent issue. The problem is not Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature; the problem is the exclusion and discrimination it highlights.