Speaking to reporters after the announcement, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said she hoped the Academy would not be criticised for its choice.
“The times they are a’changing, perhaps,” she said, comparing the songs of the American songwriter, who had yet to be informed of his win, to the works of Homer and Sappho.
“Of course he [deserves] it – he’s just got it,” she said. “He’s a great poet in the English-speaking tradition. And he is a wonderful sampler, a very original sampler. He embodies the tradition and for 54 years now he has been at it, reinventing himself constantly, creating a new identity.”
Danius said the choice of Dylan may appear surprising, “but if you look far back, … you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, performed, often together with instruments, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it. Same thing with Bob Dylan – he can be read and should be read. And he is a great poet in the grand English tradition.”
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941, Dylan got his first guitar at the age of 14 and performed in rock and roll bands in high school. He adopted the name Dylan, after the poet Dylan Thomas, and, drawn to the music of Woody Guthrie, began to perform folk music. He moved to New York in 1961, performing in the clubs and cafés of Greenwich Village. His first album, Bob Dylan, was released in 1962, and he followed it up with a host of albums which are today seen as masterpieces, including Blonde On Blonde in 1966, and Blood On The Tracks in 1975. Today, he is seen as one of contemporary popular music’s most influential names.
According to the Nobel prize committee, his albums “revolv[e] around topics like the social conditions of man, religion, politics and love”. Perhaps looking to forestall criticism of the fact that Dylan is largely seen as a musician rather than an author, the committee added that his lyrics have “continuously been published in new editions”, and that “besides his large production of albums, Dylan has published experimental work like Tarantula (1971) and the collection Writings and Drawings (1973)”, as well as “the autobiography Chronicles (2004), which depicts memories from the early years in New York and which provides glimpses of his life at the centre of popular culture”.
“As an artist, he is strikingly versatile; he has been active as painter, actor and scriptwriter,” said the announcement. “Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.”
The winner of the Nobel prize for literature is chosen by the 18 members of the Swedish Academy, who are looking for “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, according to Alfred Nobel’s will. The award admits on its website that “Alfred Nobel’s prescriptions for the literature prize were quite vague”, adding that: “in fact, the history of the literature prize appears as a series of attempts to interpret an imprecisely worded will.”
The choice of Dylan follows speculation about disagreement amongst the judging panel. The prize was expected to be announced last week, in the same week as the science medals, and the Academy’s Per Wästberg said the different date was a matter of logistics. But Bjorn Wiman, cultural pages editor at Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter, told the South China Morning Post that “if you ask me, it’s absolutely not a ‘calendar’ issue. This is a sign there’s a disagreement in the process to select a winner.”
Danius advised those unfamiliar with the work of Dylan to start with the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. “It’s an extraordinary example of his brilliant way of rhyming, putting together refrains, and his pictorial way of thinking,” she said. When she was young, she admitted, she was “not really” a Dylan fan, preferring the works of David Bowie. “Perhaps it’s a question of generation – today I’m a lover of Bob Dylan,” she said.
Dylan becomes the first American to win the Nobel prize for literature since Toni Morrison took the prize in 1993. His triumph follows comments in 2008 from Horace Engdahl, then permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, that “the US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature … That ignorance is restraining.”
Today, a jury now headed by Engdahl’s successor have obviously changed their mind.