The frontrunner, on Monday, was a perennial favorite: 81-year-old Syrian poet Adonis, who writes in Arabic and lives in Paris. Odds: 4:1. Second, at 6:1, was 80-year-old Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, little known here despite being published in translation by several poetry powerhouses. Third, at 8:1: Haruki Murakami, a spring chicken at 62, the genuinely world-famous author of strange and wondrous novels including “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” His new book, “1Q84,” will be published in English this month after selling millions of copies in his native Japan. In short, the favorites were more or less what you’d expect: one prominent figure from a nation fighting for democracy, one crowd-pleasing literary novelist, and a Swede.
Now, we Americans know how these things go. We know it’s not going to be Philip Roth; it’s always not Philip Roth. (Now that I’ve said that, he’ll win next year.) We know, in fact, that it might be someone wholly unfamiliar. For every Doris Lessing, there’s an Elfriede Jelinek, the edgy Austrian novelist who did not even have an American publisher when she won in 2004. “My money’s on Olaf Unheardofsson,” my girlfriend said, after seeing the odds on Monday. And, in the end, she was right.
As the announcement neared, however, a new frontrunner shot to the top of the list: Dylan. Not Dylan Thomas, a solid choice if he weren’t dead. Bob Dylan. This made way less sense. Here’s the thing: I like Bob Dylan, although I’m more of an “occasionally listens to ‘Blood on the Tracks’” fan than a “Check out my complete collection of bootlegs” fan. He is a brilliant lyricist, and one of the greatest living American songwriters. I would nominate him for the Nobel Prize for Songwriting in a second.
But that’s the problem. Apologies to those still freaked out about his going electric, but Bob Dylan is a rock star. (Yes, he also wrote a fine memoir, “Chronicles” — but the Nobel is for lifetime achievement, not a single book.) American rock stars should not annex the tiny number of international prizes allocated for writers of literature. All too often, those writers — of fiction, poetry, essays, plays — labor in obscurity, if not penury. The Nobel is one of the richest prizes, and one of the few (if not the only) to create an instant international readership. You have everything, rock stars! You can sell out Madison Square Garden! On a good day, poets can hardly fill ten folding chairs in a damp bookstore basement! Must you take this, too?
To give a lyricist, even a great lyricist, a literary prize is to radically confound what we mean by literature, and thus to undermine the real thing. What does it mean to open up the world’s most prestigious literary prize to Dylan? It means considering every other lyricist and librettist, in every language. And once you’ve taken that step, how do you justify excluding, say, Aaron Sorkin — along with every scriptwriter in Tehran, Beijing, and Bollywood? And then why not speechwriters, and jingle composers? How about opinion bloggers? (Over here, Swedes!)
By choosing Tranströmer, the Nobel committee declined to open this can of worms. Can you blame them? I’m all for reaching across disciplinary borders, but some categories do exist for a reason. Let Aaron Sorkin win an Academy Award. Let rock star Patti Smith win the National Book Award for nonfiction — but only because she wrote a really good nonfiction book. We don’t need Nelson Mandela to win an MTV Video Music Award, or Lady Gaga to take home the Nobel Prize for Physics (although she sort of deserves it for her work in those Alexander McQueen shoes). Far better to recognize them for what they actually do.
Let Bob Dylan win a Grammy, of all things. Let him sell out stadiums and see his records go platinum. And let Tomas Tranströmer — who, after six decades of work, is no longer Olaf Unheardofsson anywhere there is international news — have a chance to be a rock star of literature.
Amanda Katz is the deputy editor of Ideas and a former book editor. Follow her on Twitter @katzish.
Reuters/Fredrik Sandberg: Tomas Transtromer at a news conference in Stockholm after winning the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature.