What is the meaning of the Nobel Prize in Literature?

People have a lot to say about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature. I have polled my Twitter followers, and so far they believe that I should either not form an opinion on this issue or, if I do, I should keep that opinion a secret. So I am going to take my characteristically meta move and form an opinion on the controversy surrounding it.

First, it is not clear to me on what basis this particular award is being critiqued. If the Nobel committee chose wrongly, there must be some coherent account of what it would be to choose rightly. What is the Nobel Prize in Literature supposed to do, such that it is failing to achieve it in this instance?

I doubt that many people had anything like an account of what the Nobel Literature Prize was “for” before waking up this morning and being surprised by what is objectively a left-field winner (hence I’m not expressing an opinion). Since this is the internet, of course, they are morally obligated to act as though their purely post-hoc critique is a deeply held principle for which someone — in this case, the exceptionally tempting target of Baby Boomers, who are well-known to love Bob Dylan — can be judged and shamed.

Surely there are some people who did have an opinion about what the Nobel Literature Prize should do before this morning, though. Aside from people who are objecting on the purely procedural question of whether Bob Dylan’s lyrics count as “literature,” many of the critics seem to be making a gesture toward diversity (geographic, racial, gender, etc.). The implication is that the Nobel should somehow accurately reflect a “world literature,” in which the achievements of all nations and tongues are given their due.

This would indeed be a laudable goal. It is not clear to me that it was ever the goal of the Nobel Prize, however. I believe that if we were to look into the archives, we would find one particular group hugely overrepresented: namely, Swedes. If the point of the Nobel Prize in Literature was to give a snapshot of a developing world literature, then someone should have sent the Swedish Academy a memo much earlier.

Further: is there a plausible scenario in which an institution like the Swedish Academy — regardless of the good intentions that they, as good Swedes, doubtless have — could fulfill the function of cultivating and recognizing a truly global literary canon? If not, might the time spent complaining about the arbitrary and meaningless Nobel Prize in Literature be better directed toward publicizing or creating a more meaningful prize? Or could we admit that an annual prize is never going to give us what we want?

14 thoughts on “What is the meaning of the Nobel Prize in Literature?

  1. Not sure about that, though I do set, along with the lyrics. a couple of essays from the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan. It’s pretty clear Dylan is cognizant of academic scholarship, too. His album Love and Theft is indebted to Eric Lott’s great book about race, slavery and the working class.

  2. Yeah, with the same semi-dismissive joke over and over again. Like I said: you’re about at the level where we’ve been for a while. I didn’t mean it as a compliment. It’s irritating to write a lengthy post and get nothing but a dumb joke implicitly comparing me to the alt-right.

  3. I did not post to compare you to the alt-right or make any comment at all on what you’ve said, I posted because I think it’s funny to call SJWs S1Ws. As for the content I probably agree too much with everything you’ve been saying to bother adding anything else.

  4. Adam, James English’s The Economy of Prestige is an academic book from maybe five years ago that gives the best account of literary prizes I’ve read. It’s written in the spirit of Pierre Bourdieu and it makes several points that are relevant to the Dylan Nobel:

    1) Prizes are designed to provoke controversy, because controversy (“X didn’t deserve Prize Y”) is what creates the idea that there is a thing called “objective merit” that the prize is failing to capture. If you think about it, the idea that literary works can be ranked on a scale with the best ones at the top and the worst at the bottom is odd. At least it is to me. But if a prize claims to be doing this in such a way that a lot of people think it has failed, it actually reinforces the idea that it’s possible. If Dylan’s lyrics aren’t literature, there must be something called “literature” that the Nobel is supposed to be ranking.

    2) Prizes need winners as much or more than winners need prizes. If, like me, you teach at a school with fewer resources and less prestige than other places, you may have noticed that you give out honorary degrees or residencies or whatever to people who already have a lot of degrees or have won a lot of prizes. Getting those people to accept your prizes is a sign that you are a worthy judge. Now you can give an honorary degree to a donor and have it really mean something, because Amartya Sen or whoever has accepted one! Dylan confers prestige on the Nobel by being Dylan and receiving it. Thus, in my view, people who complain about Dylan getting the prize rather than a lesser-known poet or novelist, perhaps one who doesn’t write in English or doesn’t have a wide audience in America and Europe, are thinking too short term. That person will win soon (look at all the nations represented since an American last won a generation ago) and will do better out of it in terms of recognition and book sales because of this prize.

    3) It’s good to pretend not to care about prizes (English calls this “strategies of condescension”), especially if you have a lot of cultural capital from other sources (as Dylan clearly does). Again, Dylan declining the prize makes Dylan even more Dylan-y, and thus more worthy of the prize, which will thus be a boon to the next winner.

  5. It’s all a question of scale. Princeton gave an honorary degree to Dylan back in the late sixties, if memory serves. He wrote the song “Day of the Locusts” about it. I’m sure Harvard would be delighted to offer him one now if he were likely to accept. Especially if they thought he would turn Stanford down. The Nobel can’t give the prize to a deserving Belarussian non-fiction writer every year or the Pulitzer and Booker will eclipse them.

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