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On Dylan Anxiety

Bob Dylan is the 2016 Nobel Laureate in Literature. Some people love it, some people hate it. That’s to be expected. But why do the people who hate it, hate it so much?

There are all sorts of possible explanations, and certainly more than one of them has purchase. We can imagine that producers of literature and others directly interested in the form are concerned about intrusions into their particular form of cultural production. The reassignment of Dylan from folk songwriter to member of the literati threatens their particular share of the larger field of cultural work, potentially diminishing both the public and the market for (heretofore) specifically literary goods. We can read this motivation in the laments from certain quarters that deserving writers, legitimate writers, have “been snubbed in favor of touting an already-famous rock star.” In other words, there are less accolades, and less legitimacy, and therefore possibly less readership, for the Phillip Roths of the world when the Bob Dylans of the world are placed alongside them. “We pathetic literati have a few days to pretend to world importance,” frets Slate’s “critic at large,” Stephen Metcalf. “We just lost another.”

Of course, the “interests” that the partisans of literature have in drawing a boundary between it and other arts are more than rational. Here, they are connected intimately with the differential status evaluations attached to different cultural forms. Part of the offense of Dylan’s presence in this cultural world is the insufficient cultural capital of his art: folk and popular music. Dylan’s award equates, in terms of status, the tradition of Homer with the tradition of pub songs; it is the age-old distaste for the rabble by the coat-and-tailed connoisseurs of real art. To confuse folk lyrics with literature is to create a world incapable of proper judgments of taste, in which the ostensibly culturally ill-informed or under-developed are falsely brought to a state of equality with their social superiors.

We can see motivations such as these in Billboard’s article questioning whether Dylan’s lyrical writing can “stand on its own scuffed-boot feet as literature on the order of Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda and T.S. Eliot,” in which the author momentarily steps outside the mode of reportage to offer the evaluative observation that “that such deserving novelists as Don DeLillo and Phillip Roth may have missed their last, best chance for the honor in place of a… folk singer” (ellipsis in original). This implication screams off the screen when Tim Stanley, while calling Dylan “a great folk artist, maybe the greatest alive,” growls that “[h]e is a dim star strumming a guitar; [previous winners] are suns around which we orbit.” How can one receive such praise and condemnation at the same time unless “folk art” is radically separated from, and vastly inferior to, “real” literature? “Ah, but this is where we are in cultural terms,” Stanley laments. “Distinction is gone; discrimination is a dirty word. Egality is in.”

We can read it easily in Metcalf’s rejection of the committee’s decision. While purporting to be a great Dylan fan, and even showering profuse praise upon him, Metcalf, via a somewhat spurious comparative exercise involving a verse of Dylan’s “Up to Me” and a poem by Richard Wilbur, concludes that Dylan’s poetry must be an imposter because, in its “colloquial, spare” construction, it cannot accomplish Wilbur’s feat of placing “the cosmos … at our fingertips.” But since when does good writing depend on its subject matter, or the difficulty of its expression? Why should the grasp of the cosmos set Wilbur apart from Dylan, when so many of the other writers awarded and considered by the Prize have dealt with very human, grounded matters (and sometimes in language even less refined than Dylan’s)? The dichotomy is introduced because, in attempting to discern why an otherwise lauded writer should not be a viable candidate for the Nobel, it seems that his folksiness, his lack of high-mindedness, is impossible to ignore when comparing him to the historical and cultural-generic standards of literature.

This generic question is an interesting one, though, because it comes down to definition. And in it, beneath all these very real considerations of cultural roles and cultural validity, I see a “Dylan Anxiety” operating at the existential level: a fear for the solidity of reality, the usefulness of symbols, the viability of classifications. Dylan’s award challenges our knowledge of the world, and such challenges are the spaces in which we all get a pass for being at least somewhat conservative.

Both Metcalf and Vice’s Bijan Stephen take issue with the conflation of lyrics, which by definition accompany music, and poetry, which ostensibly stands on its own merits. They do not believe that lyrics can be evaluated apart from their music, and that this connection between two elements establishes the quality of the piece. Consequently, reading Dylan, as opposed to listening to him, is a partially empty experience, in which the inability of the words to stand alone as quality art is revealed to the (apparently melancholy) reader. (Both these authors seem to regret having to criticize Dylan, couching their evaluations of his writing-as-poetry in effusive praise for his musical genius.)

This line of argument is somewhat comical to me, as I have always interpreted Dylan as a poet first, who used a popular medium to traffic his message. There is an irreducible tension in Dylan’s songs between the poetry and the underlying music, such that, far from being able to appreciate his writing as a twin of sound, I find myself wanting to wrench them apart, to free his compelling verse from his underwhelming songs. Dylan has always seemed incapable of constructing that hybrid art form that Metcalf and Stephen argue is the very accomplishment that disqualifies him from the world of literature. He writes long poems, saying all he wants to say, and then sets them to a repetitive guitar figure, which he plays for as long as it takes to finish his recitation. The music and the words are not written to strengthen each other; the music is almost arbitrary, a simple construction to be used as a vessel. Its stasis is constantly at odds with the drama of the words; in language, a story gets told, emotions get raised, ideas get expressed; in music, the world stands still, stuck, refusing for some reason to budge underneath the pressure of the narrative. I have always received Dylan as a great writer of poetry and a somewhat subpar writer of music.

Besides, art is in the eye of the beholder. Clearly, the Nobel Committee, who I imagine are quite well-versed in the experience of reading, have judged Dylan’s lyrics to be poetry. Perhaps they were able to do so because they were able to separate them from the music, to experience them as one would a piece of stand-alone writing. Why should we pretend that there is no autonomy of the audience, that we must judge every piece of art by the original standards intended by its creator? In fact, much of what we consider classic literature — to go straight to the heart of the matter, Shakespeare — was originally intended as one component of a multimedia work. Why do we allow ourselves to read Shakespeare, as opposed to going to see him in the theater? Why should we allow ourselves to evaluate his writing alone, as opposed to its harmony with visual and dramaturgic elements in the plays for which it is only a script? The gods of culture have long since decreed that it is possible to appreciate writing as writing, however it was originally conceived in a larger work.

And so this generic consideration seems to fall apart, to hold no weight, to be a last ditch effort to preserve the illusion that we know there are different things, and that we know what the differences are between them. For quite some time now, especially beginning in the 20th century, artists have intentionally made us uncomfortable by challenging our perceptions of what art is. This blurring has become, for many, actually a criterion for the truly avant-garde; the genius of creative unsettling impresses us, provided we are not conservative about art, still living in a world where its boundary is drawn at the edge of the canvas. Ironically, the most forward-thinking “artists” in this conversation may be the Nobel decision-makers themselves, who have made a confrontational art form out of their own prize, suggesting that its meaning is not solidified and that it can force us to make unexpected interpretations of itself.

We are clearly now living in a world that has not yet negotiated the idea that lyrics can be writing — that Dylan can be a poet. The Nobel Committee’s decision this year has unsettled the heretofore secure grounds of artistic reality; in blurring genre, it has questioned truth, it has disrupted our ability to move peacefully through a world in which things are what they are and not other things, which are something else. This unsettling becomes all the more salient when we introduce the other worries that it implies — that writers no longer have a privileged space of cultural production; that the folk is indistinguishable from the elevated; that writer identities no longer have the same meaning, and that by inhabiting such an identity, one no longer belongs to the same tradition to which one had aspired. Witness Stanley, who knows he sounds elitist, who is so dislodged in his knowledge of culture by this decision that he worries it is a symptom of the same kind of faulty judgment that has brought Trump to the Presidential candidacy.

Perhaps it is appropriate that we should find the best illustration of this Dylan Anxiety in a (traditional) writer of some regard. Reviewing recent tweets by Irvine Welsh, The Huffington Post reported the following:

He jokingly asked whether American novelist Don De Lillo – who was tipped to win the Nobel prize Dylan got – had been inducted into the Rock n Roll hall of fame yet, implying that Dylan’s award was not appropriate. … When one commenter challenged him, claiming Dylan had been writing “wonderful stuff” for decades, Welsh hit back saying he should look the word ‘literature’ up in the dictionary. … He answered another who implied that literature and music had been intertwined throughout history by saying if that was true it would make categories like ‘music’ superfluous. … He also retweeted a tweet saying that Dylan’s work didn’t need “validating by pretending it’s something it isn’t” …

And as it turns out, Welsh is a great fan of Dylan, too.

Zachary Sunderman

  • laslanian

    This is interesting to me as a once literature snob turned sociologist. Dylan is a great lyricist and a poet. And if we go back far enough, poetry was once sung. And if we stay close to the present, we went to poetry readings. Some poets wrote poems that were better heard than read (say Frank O’hara, whose writing was full of affectation and beat) and some (say John Ashberry) were cerebral and better read than heard. There was this kind of anxiety with the opening of the canon to post-colonial writers who came from different traditions. In order to be considered high art (or real literature) they had to strain their work through the freighted literary past, allusions to Western writers, etc. And I would say of Dylan that in this sense he like the best of the post-colonials because he may come from a folk tradition but he hardly reduces to it (think of Aime Cesaire as a surrealist or VS Naipul). Just some thoughts. Great writing. Very clear, Zachary.

    • Zachary Sunderman

      All great points, Lisa!

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