Yes, you read that correctly. Bob Dylan, the American singer-songwriter, has received the 2016 Nobel prize for Literature, the world’s highest literary honor.
Annually, since 1901, the Swedish Academy celebrates great accomplishments in the fields of economics, physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and, most widely known, peace-making. The award for literature has gone to literary greats such as Ernest Hemmingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and T.S. Elliot. The list of laureates also includes many non-fiction writers, like the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russel, and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for “brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”
The Nobel Laureate in literature is awarded “to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” These guidelines, written by Alfred Nobel himself, established the lofty and open-ended framework for selecting a winner.
In a statement, the Swedish Academy selected Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Throughout Dylan’s large body of work, he has often been praised as more of a bard than a singer. His lyrics, if not poetic, are themselves poems, reflecting the mysteries and depths of the human condition. Whether or not his songs are literature is open to interpretation. From the perspective of the Swedish Academy, Dylan unquestionably qualifies as a writer of literary magnitude. The decision to honor Dylan has already proven controversial and perhaps will affect a modern definition of literature.
The award has the power to illuminate bold, talented writers. Also nominated this year was Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, Syrian poet Adunis, Kenyan playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, Spanish novelist Javier Marías, and the South Korean poet Ko Un. Dylan is the first American to win since Toni Morrison in 1993.
Dylan is the first musician to win the award for literature. There is no question of his musical genius and influence in the area of songwriting. For many, his songs provide the same gravitas and speak similar profundity as do novels or poetry. While he is an outsider to the orthodox literary tradition, the decision to award Dylan the prize for literature cements his position as a writer who has produced outstanding work in an “ideal direction.”