Awarding a Nobel Prize for literature is always a polemical decision, given that competition is stiff, and so many candidacies are being pushed forward by so many enthusiasts. Old glories and self-evident choices will be criticised by the advocates of other old glories and self-evident choices, while discoveries of decent and well-meaning authors from minority or remote literatures will be received in the Western community with a mixture of respect, puzzlement and low mumblings.
Now, Bob Dylan's award this year has had more than a mixed reception, not least by Dylan himself. It is not yet clear whether he will give a speech at all, and apparently he will not be present at the ceremony. One can only suppose that Dylan was as puzzled as his detractors at his getting the prize, but really one never knows with him. It is clear that the award might have met a warmer reception and a more grateful nominee almost anywhere else, and to that extent the choice was a screw-up.
Reactions from the world of media and journalism were mixed; those from the literary world were mostly outraged. Fernando Sánchez Dragó was quite vocal on the issue here in Spain—and many more sounded as if the Nobel Committee had taken the prize away from them on purpose, in order to throw it away down the gutter. Even Hitler had a say on the matter, in a version of the famous meme from Downfall.
Now, it is funny to note that so many baffled advocates of a "more literary" prize would voice their rejection of the Dylan award, only to say in the next mouthful that at least they might have chosen Leonard Cohen. Which sounds like a complete rejection on the grounds of principle, followed by a quite contradictory, mere preference of taste.
Cohen himself, sadly deceased since, would no doubt have attended the ceremony and received the prize with a better grace and exquisite politeness than the unpredictable Dylan (we got a taste of that when he received the Príncipe de Asturias award some years ago). But he was hardly critical of the Nobel Committe's decision. Elegant to the last, he wryly observed that "giving the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan is like placing a medal on Mount Everest." But as it turns out there would have been no speech to the Nobel Academy anyway.
Cohen or Dylan, the Nobel Prize for literature might have easily gone one way or the other, and would have been equally justified. Advocates of a more "literary" choice (i.e. a novelist, or a printed poet) seem to forget that song came before novels and printed poetry— and that poetry was song, and rhythmic narrative, "blowing in the wind" before it became anything else. We are lucky that it is still going strong, with singer-songwriters as excellent as any that have ever lived—and that we have lived to hear the likes of Dylan and Cohen in our own time, while the future will have to be content to hear them a hundred years from now, or a hundred floors above them,
singing from a window,
In the Tower of Song.
In the Tower of Song.