Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Win Doesn’t Change the Definition of Literature, Groups Say

Last week’s announcement about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature had some wondering if the definition of literature had broadened to song. Several groups offered their take.

Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last week for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” according to the Swedish Academy, which has awarded Nobel Laureates in Literature since 1901. Dylan is not only the first American to be awarded the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993 but also the first musician ever given the honor.

At the announcement, Sara Danius, a literary scholar and the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, was asked whether the choice to award the prize to a musician indicated an expansion of the definition of literature. She playfully responded with a famous Dylan lyric, “The times they are a-changing, perhaps.”

Is music joining the oeuvre of literature, at least according to the Swedish Academy?

In an interview, Danius compared Dylan’s work to the “poetic texts” of Homer and Sappho, who wanted their writing to be performed and accompanied with instruments. “It’s the same way with Bob Dylan,” she said. “But we still read Homer and Sappho and we enjoy it. And same thing with Bob Dylan. He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the grand English poetic tradition.”

Alfred Bendixen, executive director of the American Literature Association, a coalition of societies dedicated to the study of American authors, echoes Danius’ sentiments.

When asked whether songwriting should be brought into the fold of literature, Bendixen said: “We are open to all forms of literary writing, including graphic novels and various forms of nonfiction. I see no issue with including songwriting since the lyric poem—the dominant form of poetry for the last 100 years or so—originates in song.”

So, it’s not so much that the Swedish Academy is broadening the definition of literature, but that it’s recognizing songwriting for the poetry that it is—and has been throughout centuries. That said, Dylan, who is oft-nicknamed “The Bard,” “the Shakespeare in our times,” and “The Voice of a Generation” is likely a unique example of an artist whose work is considered poetry.

“I cannot speak officially for the various societies,” Bendixen said. “But as a scholar of American literature and the coeditor of the Cambridge History of American Poetry, I am excited by the selection of Bob Dylan for this prize.”

President Obama also acknowledged Dylan as a poet with his congratulatory tweet: “Congratulations to one of my favorite poets, Bob Dylan, on a well-deserved Nobel.”

Emily Bratcher

By Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a Contributing Editor for Associations Now. MORE

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