“Philip Roth just bought an acoustic guitar.”
That’s what novelist Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers, posted on Facebook soon after it was announced that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Perrotta was either taking a shot at the Swedish Academy for not giving the $900,000 award to Roth, who is arguably long overdue for it, or he was just making a good joke.
A lot of writers and critics, and even a member of the Swedish Academy, took shots at Dylan last week. How could a mere singer-songwriter not acknowledge what an honor and privilege it was to be in the company of the great novelists Faulkner and Bellow and the great poet Eliot?
A whole other crew wanted Dylan to reject the Nobel – to say “Aw shucks, pop songs ain’t literature, I don’t deserve your prize.”
How dare he not respond at all?
The obvious answer – this is just Dylan being Dylan – wasn’t good enough for James Wolcott and other critics, but I’ll accept it.
Dylan has been putting his poetry to music for more than a half-century, more or less on his own terms, inspired by Elvis and Woody, Eliot and Pound, Ma Rainey and Beethoven.
He defied his folkie fan base by going electric in the mid-1960s, a move that ultimately resulted in the back-to-back masterpieces Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. Then he did an about-face with the quietly cryptic John Wesley Harding. He surprised everybody with his mid-1970s comeback, Blood On the Tracks. And so on.
He never pretended to be a hippie or a punk or a disco duck. Or the voice of his generation.
He lets his work speak for him. There were no soul-baring profiles in People magazine, no deep reveals to Terry Gross, no acceptance of the notion that an artist must surrender to convention and become a celebrity.
Dylan might show up to accept the Nobel in December, as he has done for other awards, but his early silence regarding the big prize is his way of saying awards are bullshit – that they have more to do with fashion than with originality, or even quality.
“To live outside the law you must be honest,” he once sang. And “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
Or do you?