Bob Dylan has barred the door. This year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in, of all things, literature will not acknowledge the honor. It has been almost two weeks, and he still will not even answer the phone, possibly a collect call from Stockholm. Initially, he or someone else posted news of the award on his Web page, but shortly afterward, even that was taken down and Dylan — sometimes accessible, usually not — has now earned the scorn of the very collection of Swedes who chose him for the honor. “One can say that it is impolite and arrogant,” said Per Wastberg, a member of the Swedish Academy. One could say that, of course, but one could be wrong.
I am as entitled to interpret Dylan as almost anyone else. He has always been the sum of his contradictions. Born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn., and raised mostly in Hibbing on the Iron Range, he slipped into the persona of the quintessential Greenwich Village troubadour before moving upstate to Woodstock and from there to almost anywhere in the world — mostly airplanes and hotel rooms. He now lives in Malibu, not too far from Barbra Streisand, which like everything else about Dylan may or may not tell you something.
When the award was announced, some people shouted with glee. It was innovative and exciting, and not another accolade for someone you never heard of, writing in a lost language and having no hope of a movie sale. Still, that is one of the Nobel’s admirable features. It identifies the worthy but unknown. This is in contrast to the ridiculously fashionable MacArthur “genius grants,” one of which was given to Lin-Manuel Miranda, years after he had become both rich and famous from “Hamilton” as well as “In the Heights.” To recognize the famous and reward the rich is just plain offensive.
Dylan’s Nobel produced a different order of controversy. The question was whether what he did was “literature” since to award a songwriter is to deny a writer-writer. My nominee would have been Philip Roth, a dazzling novelist, who is now retired and, I imagine, sitting at home dying to throw open the door that Dylan has barred shut. Or, if the Nobel Committee wanted to stray from literature qua literature, I would recommend Stephen Sondheim, something of a genius with a lyric. Or have you never listened to “The Ladies Who Lunch,” “Send in the Clowns” or, somewhat different, “Gee, Officer Krupke”?
In an era when we are repeatedly told that the establishment or gatekeepers are both repudiated and irrelevant, the awarding of a prize still commands attention. In this case, 18 Swedes of black-hole obscurity proclaim the genius of Dylan and the announcement not only makes the front page of the newspapers but also makes academic worthies fall all over one another arguing the merits of the selection. But the Nobel is just the most august of those ubiquitous “10 most” lists that sit at the bottom of my computer screen, tempting me from the work at hand. Someone has anointed someone. We are piqued. We look. Why? I would get a Pulitzer for knowing.
I think Dylan’s award is innovative, but I cannot judge its relative worth. Is he better than Roth, worse than Sondheim? Is he in the same league with previous laureates — Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow or Gabriel García Márquez, to pick four almost at random? Does it matter that I can recall a lyric and even where I was when I first heard it, while I cannot do the same for Steinbeck? Does it matter further that the lyric has an accomplice in the music and pure literature does not?
These are questions worth pondering. But what interests me more is Dylan’s reaction to the award. Could it be that he does not feel himself worthy — not just in comparison with previous winners, but particularly those who in their own time were never considered? Possibly. I am thinking now of Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein or Maxwell Anderson (just for “September Song”).
More likely, as Adam Kirsch argued in the New York Times, Dylan is looking to remain what he is and what he has been — a songwriter and an entertainer — and not some lofty statue of a person. It’s anyone guess, but mine has to do with age. Dylan is a creaky 75, an age of perverse puberty where, as in the dim past, so much can change on a daily basis. To Dylan, the Nobel may seem like a tombstone. It beckons him to join the others, most of them dead, and those sun-deprived Swedes must seem like multiple Grim Reapers.
They knock. Nothing. They knock again. Still nothing. They are perplexed. Read the song lyrics. Kirsch cited “It Ain’t Me Babe.” I’d choose another: “Forever Young.”