By Andrew Berthoff
Since the Nobel people announced that the brilliant songwriter Bob Dylan is the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, not a few people have asked me what I think. Friends know my background in and love of literature as well as, of course, my professional life in communications and marketing in the music industry, so I guess it’s a logical question.
What do I think?
I think it’s great for the noble and honourable craft and art of songwriting and music creation. I love that it elevates SOCAN’s noble and honourable calling to fight for the rights of music creators and publishers. For that reason alone, I love it.
But, I suspect like Bob Dylan himself believes, the award is inappropriate – mainly because he likes to keep his craft and work simple. It is what it is. He insists “Blowin’ in the Wind” was written in 20 minutes. It flowed forth naturally, the muse striking with urgency and ease, as it miraculously, magically and rarely can.
Songwriting and music composition is almost always hard, hard work. There are the rare examples of instant classics, just as some Picasso masterpieces might have been made in minutes. But the vast majority of songs and compositions take figurative blood, sweat and tears – and measurable time.
Perhaps if Dylan took himself super-seriously and was precious about his work he might have a different opinion about receiving – never mind accepting – the Lit Nobel. That he’s so self-effacing and elusive about his art makes the honour that much more complicated.
I tend to think that giving the Nobel Prize for Literature to a songwriter is a brilliant and probably calculated PR stunt. It surprises and delights. It gets people talking. Like great art itself, it elicits a reaction, which doesn’t have to be positive in order to be successful. The controversy raises interest and awareness. By selecting the elusive and capricious Dylan, they must have anticipated that his response (or lack of one) would add intrigue and controversy to their choice.
But the stunt might come at a cost to the Nobel “brand.” There are not a few acknowledged literary masters who have taken umbrage, even more strident than what was seen following the debatable Peace Nobel awarded to Barack Obama after his relatively few years of work. In subjective prize-giving like this, inevitably it’s the list of who has not received the award that makes it questionable. The inference drawn is that Bob Dylan achieved more in literature than, say, Joyce, Proust or Nabokov.
While the credibility of the Nobel Prize might have taken a reputational hit that I don’t much like, I love the fact that the credibility of songwriting as an esteemed literary art-form has been elevated.
Just as they added a prize for Economic Sciences in 1969, perhaps a better solution might be for the 115-year-old Nobel organization to add a new category: Music. That makes sense, and would allow the prize to expand. As with novelists, playwrights and poets in contention for the Lit Nobel, all genres of music creation could be in line for the music prize.
And I would fully expect that future Nobel Prizes in Music will go to SOCAN members like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.