As we are completely out of the Nobel Prize for Literature season and, I would hope, no-one else is discussing the matter, I thought it would be time for me to put in my somewhat controversial proposal. When listening to rock music, I have now and then thought that some of the better songwriters would, in the past, have more likely put their thoughts down in literary works rather than songs. Several songwriters have written literary works other than their songs – Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Morrissey and Neil Young are a few obvious examples, though there are others. With the possible exception of Leonard Cohen, none of these works has a great deal of literary merit, though Morrissey did get his autobiography published in Penguin Classics. However, when it comes to the literary quality of some of the lyrics, it is a different story.
Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Pete Townshend, John Lydon, Ray Davies, Joe Strummer, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Robbie Robertson are just some of the lyricists whose lyrics are outstanding. (The sharp-eyed will have noticed two Americans, five Brits and four Canadians. The sharp-eyed will also have noticed no Beatles or Stones.) Can we compare them to current novelists from these countries? When the Nobel Prize circus comes around, two US writers are regularly to be found on the bookies’ lists – Bob Dylan and Philip “I love my penis; do you?” Roth. John “Like the Rolling Stones, I am always one trend behind” Updike was often on the list when he was alive. I have mentioned more than once that Roth and Updike are, in my view, massively overrated and, in fifty years time, will be a footnote to literary history. Most of those songwriters will, I feel, still be recognised. Of course, making these comparisons will bring down charges like those brought down on those who compared the Beatles to Mozart (not, in my view, a valid comparison; the Beatles’ music was generally trite).
When you look at some of these lyrics, you can (or, at least, I can) see considerable talent. Dylan, for example – in my view the best rock lyricist ever – has produced great political lyrics (Hurricane; Masters of War; The Times They Are A-changin’; Talkin’ World War III Blues), poetical lyrics, often with a touch of politics in them (Desolation Row; A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall), sad love songs (Visions of Johanna; Sara), put-downs (Positively 4th Street; Like a Rolling Stone), cryptic poetical lyrics (All Along the Watchtower; My Back Pages), stories (Tweeter And The Monkey Man; The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest) and many others. As you can see from the links above, there are several sites devoted to his lyrics and attempts to explain them. One criticism levelled at my claim was the question of scale. It was said that Dylan and these other lyricists did not actually write all that much. Dylan has written or, more accurately, published over 500 songs. He has probably written many more. During her lifetime, Emily Dickinson published only a handful of poems though left nearly 1800 behind. I have read a few and I have to be honest and say that I find them really rather uninteresting. (Yes, I know that that is sacrilege but they really do not do anything for me.) I have no doubt that, were she alive, she would be considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize. The same goes for other poets who have won the Nobel Prize such as Tomas Tranströmer, Wisława Szymborska, Derek Walcott, Jaroslav Seifert and Vicente Aleixandre. I am sure that all of these are great poets but they do not inspire me or give me any great pleasure the way that Dylan and the others do. And, of course, Pasternak essentially won the Prize on one novel and a few poems.
The Nobel Prize has not always been a great success. Look at some of the winners and the quality has been distinctly uneven. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (known primarily for having written the Norwegian national anthem), Giosuè Carducci, Paul von Heyse, Verner von Heidenstam, Carl Spitteler and Pearl Buck are little read (outside their home countries) and little valued. Many worthy writers did not win it, even though they qualified. Surely Dylan and Co. can stand comparison to any of those? So are you really suggesting that Bob Dylan should win the Nobel Prize for literature? I hear you say. I would much rather that it were awarded to one of the many worthy writers who I think deserve it – Kadare, Tournier, Butor, Juan Goytisolo, Luis Goytisolo, Oates, Pynchon and Handke. Doubtless, there are other worthy claimants. But, having said that, if the Nobel Prize were to be awarded to Bob Dylan, I would not throw up my hands in horror as some would and as I would if it went to Philip Roth.