Bob Dylan’s Nobel: Better to have gone to a ‘complete unknown’?

If the academy wanted to honour a music icon, Paul Simon would be a better choice

For the times they are a-changing . . . No doubt they are, and few artists know more about flux than Bob Dylan, this year's surprise choice of Nobel Laureate for Literature.

Dylan, with an aura of protest and lamentation akin to that of Walt Whitman, now becomes the first American to win since Toni Morrison in 1993. But although the great man himself wrote the words “Don’t think twice, it’s alright”, the Swedish Academy really should have.

The members should have avoided a modern music icon and instead considered poets, playwrights, novelists and short story writers – and especially those living in countries where regimes have continued to silence their voices.

Still, as it had clearly decided to play for the popular vote, the academy could as easily have given the award to Paul Simon, another and even more deserving 75-year-old, middle-class American Jewish singer-songwriter of proven genius.


Both of these gifted artists – Simon possessing the added advantage of a tuneful singing voice and a mastery of the guitar – have encapsulated the sound of America. Dylan, the midwesterner, has drawn on the American folk tradition. Simon, of a more mellow and admittedly sophisticated musicality, has heeded his tradition but also searched further, beyond the music of the US.

Simon angered many by venturing to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. He argued he was a musician, not a politician, and the journey produced the Graceland album.

Dylan v Simon

A tough call, Dylan versus Simon. I'd go for Simon, who wrote Bridge Over Troubled Water, The Boxer, The Sound of Silence, Homeward Bound, America, The Boy in the Bubble and so on. More than ever during a grotesque presidential campaign, the US needs Dylan and Simon; but neither needs the Nobel Prize.

And without trying too hard, the academy could have identified another Jewish writer ( also, like Simon, from Newark): Philip Roth, now 83 and, in the company of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, one of the last surviving great American writers of the postwar era.

Should Simon fail to win a Grammy for his superb recent album, Stranger to Stranger, perhaps Roth will collect one instead? After all, it's only fair. Stranger things have happened. Roth's vibrant exploration of America evolved from an initial self-absorption with the role of the writer to something far greater, the American-Jewish experience.

Now that a singer-songwriter has won the Nobel Prize, there will be calls on behalf of Canada's Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. Or how about the oracle of blue-collar America, Bruce Springsteen? Had David Bowie not died in January, there may well have been calls for his taking the honour ahead of Dylan. (Fans are like that.)

It is a shame that the academy ignored the claims of literary masters such as the Albanian Ismail Kadare, winner of the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2007, or the wonderful Hungarian Laszlo Krasznahorkai, whose novels such as Satantango and Seiobo There Below, rewrite our human experience with a thrillingly unique bravado.

Elevating the ordinary

Great literature is about making the ordinary soar; it elevates quiet lives of desperation. Few writers have done this as brilliantly as Canadian Alice Munro and the Irish writer William Trevor. Munro was acknowledged in 2013; it is time Trevor was honoured.

It is true that when Italian playwright Dario Fo was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1997, there were complaints along the lines that his work needed to be performed. But then Russian-born poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky, who won in 1987 and was by then a US citizen, admitted his poems needed to be recited, not read. Where does that performance distinction leave the late Harold Pinter, who was honoured in 2005?

Still with Dylan, he has his words, his music, his performance and often the backing of a band. Whereas writers only have their words. It seems unfair and introduces a question. If a songwriter this time, when will the Swedes award a film-maker? Why shouldn’t Wim Wenders or Alejandro González Iñárritu be eligible for the Nobel Prize? They have written screenplays.

For his acceptance, Dylan is giving a concert, not a reading – which says it all. He is a singer who writes the brilliant and provocative songs he performs. His admirers the world over will always be willing to work on Maggie’s farm.

Innovation is always exciting, but just as ballet lovers would rather see the Kirov perform ballet and not break-dancing – which no doubt the dancers could do very well – the academy has chosen to ignore its at times controversial, often rewarding brief and bid for a wider audience.

The only problem is Bob Dylan has already won an audience far, far wider than the Nobel Prize while there are writers who not only need to win it, they deserved to.

If only Bob had run for president.

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times