Saturday 25 January 2020

Rewarding crowd-pleasers is not the point of Nobel prizes

A mural of Bob Dylan, the 2016 Nobel Prize winner in literature, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. REUTERS/Craig Lassig
A mural of Bob Dylan, the 2016 Nobel Prize winner in literature, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. REUTERS/Craig Lassig

Tim Stanley

Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Why not? If the Nobel Committees can give a peace prize to Henry Kissinger then it can give a literature prize to a man who hasn't written any literature.

Where that all ends, I don't know. Perhaps a Nobel Prize in 2025 being awarded to Donald Trump for lyrical tweeting.

This is not a question of taste. Dylan is a great folk artist, maybe the greatest alive. But the Nobel is supposed to be awarded not on the basis of what the public likes (if it were, Doris Lessing wouldn't have won it) but on ability matched by idealism.

Dylan has both, but his body of work falls far short of that produced by past winners: Yeats, Gide, O'Neill, Solzhenitsyn, etc. The scale of their output and the thematic density of their texts outstrips Dylan by light years.

He is a dim star strumming a guitar; they are suns around which we orbit. We are lucky enough to live among them today.

If the Committee wanted an American then it could have chosen Don DeLillo, Philip Roth or Thomas Pynchon. It did not have to make this choice. So why did it? Nostalgia. Politics. To please the crowd. To name someone who would shatter the Committee's reputation for intellectual snobbery - a reputation that it only has among those uninterested in literature.

It's like worrying that the Davis Cup is too closely associated with tennis.

And if popularising the prize is the aim, then why not Leonard Cohen or Paul McCartney? Moreover, why popularise a prize which isn't elected but chosen by the knowledgeable on the basis of achievement? This is the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not 'Sweden's Got Talent'.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss