Early this morning, the Nobel Prize committee announced the final prize of this award season. The Nobel Prize for Literature went to American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Bob Dylan is an American icon, and a brilliant American artist. It’s really difficult to argue that a man who has had a profound influence over American life and culture, who has toured for decades and built his songs about religion and politics into popular hits, doesn’t deserve to win this prize. But his win is certainly a surprise.
Dylan is only the ninth American ever to win the prize for Literature joining the ranks of Sinclair Lewis (1930), Eugene Gladstone O’Neill (1936), Pearl Buck (1938), T.S. Eliot (1948), William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Miller Hemingway (1954), John Steinbeck (1962), and Toni Morrison (1993).
The difference between Dylan and all of these people is that he is not a novelist. In fact, the only book Dylan has ever written, Tarantula, is truly terrible and was almost universally panned. Dylan is the first songwriter ever to win the prize (if you don’t count Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote songs but won for his poetry). But the Nobel Committee, in their statement, makes it a point to place Dylan’s win in the context of poetry’s oral (often sung) history saying:
If you look far back … you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts which were meant to be performed, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it.
Comparing Bob Dylan to Homer is a bit of a stretch, and though his songs from the ’60s and ’70s are really brilliant, plenty of people have (totally justified) reasons for thinking this was a bad decision. Here are a few of them:
The best critiques of Dylan’s award though, aren’t about Dylan at all. Because the prize for Literature was the last to be awarded, after Dylan’s name was announced, it became clear that no women were awarded a Nobel Prize in 2016.
It’s not Dylan’s fault that the Nobel Prize committee failed to give a single award to a woman this year. It’s not his fault that in a 115-year history, 833 men have won the Nobel Prize, compared to only 48 women, and that only four black women have won the award ever. But for people who care about equality and representation on stages of power and recognition, this year’s Nobel Prize winners are a disappointment, no matter how you feel about Bob Dylan.
Whether Bob Dylan deserves this award is debatable. Whether this prize should be given to songwriters or popular musicians can be written about for years to come. But one thing is clear— there have to be some women in the world who deserve these accolade. That the Nobel Prize committee continues to remain ignorant or intentionally ignore the work of women, says more about who gets to win these awards than Bob Dylan’s prize ever will.