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?