If Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for Literature long ago when I was in my 20's, I'd have celebrated that choice. I spent a lot of time with some of his albums, and I'd have been able to tell you all the ways that he was a superior writer to anyone else. In fact, I had fierce arguments with friends who insisted that John Lennon was better; if there were other candidates, I don't remember. I might also have argued for Bono from U2, although at the time, I'd have seen Dylan as superior.
My friends and I also had arguments about whether or not songwriters should be considered poets. Was songwriting so different a form that we couldn't compare the two? At different points in my life, I'd have answered differently. In my younger years, when I was listening to the same music as my students, the arguments would have seemed more pressing, a way to prove to my students that literature was important, was worth studying, was worth preserving for future generations.
Now I am older. While I have replaced the vinyl U2 with compact discs, I have not bought CDs of Dylan's music that inspired me in my youth. I rarely have the yearning to hear an old Dylan song the way I do so many others. Much of Dylan's music seems rooted in a distant time, but that may say more about me as a listener than something important about the music.
I think about all the other authors, all equally deserving of the Nobel. I think about all the years that the Nobel committee has made their choice, and I've said, "Who?" Some years, the announcement of the Nobel winner has led to delightful discoveries. For example, in the rush to explain the choice of Wisława Szymborska, I heard her work for the first time and rushed to read more. I must confess that the fact that she was a poet meant that I was more likely to pick up her work; I already have so many novelists on my list whom I may never get to.
So, do I see the choice of Dylan as a sure sign of the collapse of culture? No, I don't. It may be a sign that culture has shifted, but it's not like they gave the Nobel to Brittany Spears.
I've always said that if I wanted my poetry to have a wider audience, I should find a group of rappers and let them transform my work into something that would get airplay. Or, once I said that. Now I'm not sure that radio airwaves is the way to win hearts and minds. I wish I knew a sure way.
In some ways, Dylan answers that question, but not with a surefire formula. In fact, some might find fault with him for changing his art, for co-opting his art to fit with what audiences wanted. Some decades, he's been successful in that effort. In some decades, he's been a forgotten remnant.
But he's always continued creating. If there's a lesson for the rest of us, that must be the one that gives us hope.
He didn't create art while saying, "One day I'll show the establishment. I'll win the Nobel Prize, and then they'll be sorry!"
No, he created art that changed the establishment: it's a time-honored goal. It may not be what he set out to do, but I would argue that the art that is most important, most enduring, is the art that changes society.
I say this, of course, being fully aware of all the important art that did not do that, but is important for other reasons. I say this paragraph above while at the same time being able to contradict myself with all the other art that is far more important if less transformative to the society around it.
I say all of this realizing that we could spend lifetimes debating the whole issue of importance.
So, let me get back on track. Let me celebrate that an artist who was once vitally important to me has been honored. Let me celebrate that this choice will spark interesting conversations with many people who wouldn't ordinarily talk about literature at all.
Let me celebrate that those of us who are feeling a bit obscure and forgotten may find inspiration to keep going, to keep making our art, because of this choice of Nobel laureate.