A quick question: How many times have you heard the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature and said ‘Oh yeah, he or she totally deserves it’? I would assume that for an average reader like me, it almost never happens. When it comes to Nobel Prizes in the sciences, those who are in the trenches generally know who the top contenders are. And given how little gets accomplished in world peace each year, the contenders for the Nobel Peace Prize are also generally well known public figures. By the very nature of literature, it almost never happens in this category. Since literature in any language qualifies for the Nobel Prize, it is such a vast ocean that it is humanly impossible for anyone to have read everything – or even something – written by every author in the world. To add to that, there are times when the writer’s socio-political relevance plays a major role and at other times, the author’s indulgence in magical realism has won him or her the top prize. Come to think of it, it is actually a miracle that the committee for the Nobel Prize for Literature can even come up with a reasonable shortlist every year!
I have read very few works by Nobel laureates. I cannot attribute it to my undying love for literature. Rather, it is a side effect of being a compulsive traveller and an even more compulsive book buyer. I hate shopping, but cannot walk out of a bookstore without buying a book. I recently heard that there is a word for people who buy books and keep stacking them on their shelves without reading them. Guilty as charged! It has gotten to a level now where I avoid walking into bookstores. However, I end up cheating myself when I am killing time at international airports. And the bookstores at these airports invariably carry works of their homegrown Nobel laureates (if any). I have picked up an occasional Orhan Pamuk, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Steinbeck or a V.S. Naipaul, but I believe that, for an average reader, the works can be hit or miss. Orhan Pamuk’s Other Colors spoke to me because of its inherent East-West cultural conflict. Naipaul’s Among the Believers worked exceedingly well, but ironically, India: A Million Mutinies Now somehow felt too dense. Steinbeck’s legendary The Grapes of Wrath made me go from ‘Why?’ to ‘Nailed it!’ in the last five pages. In magical realism, Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera seemed magical only in patches, but One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I am not done with yet, grips you from the first page.
All of this reading has been after the fact. So, when I read last week that Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, my first reaction was ‘For a change, I know the winner!’ It was quickly overshadowed by doubts. In this vast ocean of world literature, where does a singer-songwriter stand in the hierarchy? If you want to pick a singer-songwriter, why pick someone from the United States, which already has an outsized cultural influence around the world that half of the world has come to resent? Would it make more sense to pick someone from some other cultural or linguistic background to help raise his or her global profile? After all, Nobel committees have missed the mark several times in the past. No Nobel Peace Prize for M. K. Gandhi? A Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama? Even in literature, no Nobel Prize for Jorge Luis Borges? Not surprisingly, a lot of commentators have criticized the decision over the past week.
Some of the criticism might be valid, but listening to his songs for the millionth time over in the last couple of days managed to clear all those doubts for me. A top down approach to making such decisions might be able to explain this anomaly. Let us assume that we want to be unconventional this year and pick a singer-songwriter. And we want to restrict ourselves to the English language. How many artists come to your mind? I don’t even need all the fingertips of one of my hands to count them. An overwhelming majority of the songs talk about some stage of love. The reach and influence of most of the bands rarely lasts beyond a decade. Very few singers are gifted enough to write their own songs. Or, the gifted songwriters are rarely good composers and singers. Mark Knopfler stands tall. Bruce Springsteen is a stalwart. Alanis Morrissette brought something refreshing to the table. Rage Against the Machine tried to capture the contemporary mood. Some old school hip hop artists made the art form a cultural force to reckon with. But if you go searching for something ahead of its times in the English speaking world, it will probably boil down to Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan.
Pink Floyd was undoubtedly a perfect storm. Incredible lyrics, mind-blowing pyrotechnics, technical finesse, clever use of electronics, philosophical undertones that were only matched by the silent pauses in the music. When you add up all the talent of the four core band members, the result is immortality. As if all that weren’t enough, they came up with the concept of concept albums. They imagined a world in which a 60-plus minute album like Dark Side of the Moon or Division Bell could be considered one song. Or an album like Animals could brilliantly capture the human condition that George Orwell did in his book The Animal Farm. Pink Floyd’s ‘artistic product,’ if you will, belongs to a rare genre in which you can just read the lyrics and without having heard the song, you are convinced that this has to be a beautiful song.
Bob Dylan’s genius lies in the fact that it belongs to that same rare genre, but doesn’t stop there. The music has none of the pyrotechnics or the technical finesse, but it doesn’t need any of that. Like Brazil’s Bossanova singers, Dylan could be sitting in a public square, strumming his guitar and humming along, and people will gravitate towards it. The folksy, nasal voice. The simplicity of the chords that is only matched by the incisive commentary on contemporary issues. Capturing the vagaries of life that so easily transcend cultural boundaries. Lyrics and style that evolve and age with the singer. Music that appeals to everyone from an assembly line worker to a soldier on the field to an academic researcher to the occupant of the highest political office. Even on a piece of paper, the songs sing themselves to you.
As an Average Joe, I can now stop knockin’ on heaven’s door and claim that, for once, I know the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. And with a singer-songwriter winning the coveted prize, I do not feel as if times they are a changin’. But I can definitely say to the critics:
We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view…
That is the genius of Bob Dylan.