Center Director Jeffrey Shoulson Reflects on Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

By Jillian Chambers

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, to the surprise of many, was awarded to the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Center Director Jeffrey Shoulson was recently featured on Trash Flow Radio, a radio program in Cincinnati, to discuss the implications of, and fallout over, the Swedish Academy’s decision to award the prize to Dylan.

Professor Shoulson began by explaining that there have been two general reactions in the world of literature, both on the extreme side of the spectrum: those who are thrilled and those that are disappointed. Especially in the age of social media, response has been swift and decisive. Shoulson recalled how he found out: a friend messaged him saying “Dylan WTF?” and, not having heard the news himself, he thought that Bob Dylan had died until he checked Facebook.

There have been many objections to awarding Dylan the Prize, the most common being that popular music is not legitimate enough for a Nobel Prize in literature. Shoulson found fault with this objection, arguing that if other forms of writing can be recognized, so should music. He also commented on the influence of Bob Dylan and the debate over measuring the quality of literature. Should the measure of the quality of the literature be independent of its influence? Is influence even relevant? Shoulson said that, in his estimation, easily two thirds of the people who had been given the award have had significantly less influence than Dylan and are not nearly as well known. At the same time, there are also writers who, despite their extensive influence and literary importance, never received the Prize.

Another objection raised by the radio host during the interview was that songwriting is different than prose or poetry because the lyrics of a song cannot be separated from the music. In choosing Dylan, Shoulson argued, the Academy has signaled that it is going to be more expansive in what and whom it considers literary. Dylan’s prize is also an acknowledgement of poetry’s roots. Before it was ever written down, poetry was sung; the term “lyrics poetry” takes it name more a musical instrument, the lyre, which was the standard ancient accompaniment to poetry, not at all unlike the acoustic guitar Dylan strums when he sings.

In addition to the last two objections, people have taken issue with Dylan’s plagiarism. Shoulson offered the counterargument by saying that Dylan’s work does not diminish what he borrowed, rather he “refined and raised it to the level of brilliance that we associate with Dylan’s music.” Shoulson added that this is a common feature of the folk tradition, and the literature Prize to Dylan is a recognition of the American folk tradition.

Shoulson and the radio host also discussed Dylan’s religion Dylan was born Jewish but converted to Christianity in the late 1970s. Some people have protested Dylan receiving the award by arguing that if the Academy was going to choose a Jewish American writer, it should have chosen someone like Philip Roth. Shoulson countered both Dylan and Roth have notoriously fraught relations with their Jewish roots.