19/10/2016 | books
Once upon a time he sang so fine he threw the hacks a dime in their prime, didn’t he? Well, now he’s upstaged the hacks at their own show when he didn’t even need to and the world is frothing at the mouth, pledging its time to arguing about it.
At 75 Bob Dylan has taken the highest and most contentious literary honour of our times and made it still more contentious for no apparent reason. Unless, as Margret Atwood told the BBC, it’s “playing off” a “US countercultural figure from the Sixties” against “the US election and all that’s going on there”. Which it probably is. And wouldn’t that be a good enough reason to deplore the Eurocentric, pro-colonial politicisation of the literary map — an endeavour in which the mysterious council of eighteen continues to engage — rather than congratulate it on the supposed radicalism and rightness of its choice? For all we know Youssou N’Dour might have been played off against some significant political event in Senegal or all of Africa, but he hasn’t got a Nobel Prize for new poetic expressions within the great mbalax tradition, now, has he. If there is a Serer language tradition of oral literature, no one has heard of it…
Not that the practically beatified folk-rock-pop innovator and anti-war icon cares either way — at the time of writing, the Swedish Academy still hasn’t managed to get him on the phone — but he’s already won accolades enough for 113 authors (113 being the total number of Nobel laureates in literature before him, including shares). And he won them, straightforwardly, if not in music then in social-political arenas to which he contributed by singing, not writing. Unlike other pop traditions, in English singers tend to write their own songs: that shouldn’t deflect from the fact that what they’re celebrated for is their singing, not at all necessarily the quality of the verses involved. And what did Mr Tambourine Man have to go and gobble up a whole literature laureate’s spot for, now? Just to play that Appalachian-sounding harmonica of his? And doesn’t he know how much that spot is needed in the non-European old world? Now Dylan has millions of writers a-seethin’. He probably has music makers and spoken-word artists of every description a-hopin’. And he has me a-wonderin’ why on earth most of the commentary has been in favour of the decision, a posteriori.
Come gather ’round, people, wherever you roam, and admit that the arguments around you have grown — ridiculous, and accept that — there is something incendiary about a contemporary American singer-songwriter being celebrated as an author, and winning (in theory) against Philip Roth, Haruki Murakami, Jon Fosse, Adonis, any number of lionised authors, especially considering how many amazing wordsmiths not nearly as well positioned as the Ladbrokes-list names could use the opportunity. Of course it might be that you love Bob Dylan. You might see the Swedish Academy’s bow to “the low as well as the high” literary tradition (in the words of Academy Secretary Sara Danius) as a positive and egalitarian gesture. And to this end you might argue, as my friend Ian Dreiblatt does, that Dylan “makes art out of words”, writing “in a form that happens to coincide with what the majority of people who have ever lived have understood by the word ‘literature’”, and that if his words do not read so well on the page, that is because they were intended to be sung.
But this is to deny that it is only by the page that humanity has appreciated and canonised Dylan’s alleged predecessors from Homer to Shakespeare via the Andalusian Arab poets (who invented forms of verse specifically to be sung, but whose admirers have no record at all of the tunes to which they were). It would be denying that, for 500 years at least, good writing has not required a particular mode of musical declamation to be recognised as such, that song lyrics have very seldom been appreciated as writing and that within American literature even without a capital L — beyond the mainstay “lyricist” line stretching from Walt Whitman (b. 1819) through Robert Frost (b. 1874) to John Ashbery (b. 1927) and others — there have been more credibly countercultural, vocally oriented and (in the case of Allen Ginsberg) equally famous figures who really did make art out of words and words alone, and whose words belie any literary claim Dylan might have or make, however moving, profound or ingenious Ian finds his song lyrics.
So it might be that you love Bob Dylan. Truman Capote, who famously claimed that no one “transported intellectual falsity to higher levels of hilarious pretension”, didn’t. But you have to admit that — even though Dylan’s lyrics do occasionally, and I mean very, very occasionally, read beautifully, like poetry — the “sophisticated musical con-man pretending to be a simple-hearted revolutionary but sentimental hillbilly”, as Capote describes him, has used words as a means to express essentially musical, often political emotions and to develop a performer’s persona rather than making them the end of his creativity, as even a singing poet — troubadour, bard, whatever — should. You also have to accept that Dylan has thrived on duplicity as much as anything: a pretend country bumpkin, he strikes me as the kind of anti-establishment presence that in truth serves the establishment; one more freedom fighter and poor man’s friend who has managed to trade in the struggle for fame, fortune and a central place in mainstream commercial culture.
And yet, having said that, I should also say that I am too far away from Bob Dylan to appreciate the nuances of his position in American society and history. I just happen to live in a culture where pseudo-revolutionary, provincial posturing has facilitated many a purely mercenary career and where rhyming words that barely work as song lyrics are too often confused with literary art. I also happen to be an Egyptian writer of steadily dwindling ambition. I am savagely jealous of Orhan Pamuk, one of exactly two Nobel laureates from the Middle East and North Africa: the one who is still alive and whose work I relate to. But I am also painfully aware of how little attention the world’s intellectual centres have paid to literary achievement in my part of the world, whose literatures should merit a place alongside the literatures of the West but don’t — mainly for political, Eurocentric and pro-colonial reasons. As a literary figure it doesn’t feel good to be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone; I’ll vouch for that. From where I’m standing, Dylan’s award does not so much redefine borders as reinforce a sense of geographic-racial isolation, frustration with contemporary humanity’s increasing lack of interest in the written word and deep distrust of the Swedish Academy.