The good news is that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The bad news is that the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Bob Dylan. Good because it gives an American the prize after a long wait for one of our own writers to be acknowledged. Bad because I have a difficult time thinking of Dylan as a writer as we normally think of them--poet, novelist, essayist, playwright.Stephen Metcalf, writing in Slate, argues that Dylan, despite the conspicuous profundity of his innovations and the global, generation spanning reach of his influence, did not deserve the Prize because Dylan is not a man of literature, but a rather a songwriter, a lyricist, not a poet. I wrote long and agitated on topic in 2007, which you can read at length here .To summarize ,Dylan is a not a poet, but a songwriter who writes lyrics, an art now distinct from poetry which he has taken apart and reconfigured and put back together as no one else has done. Yes, I realize many will make the argument are historically connected in past ages, but that there has been a split between what's done in song and what is done on the page quite a while ago and Dylan , for all his revolutionizing, did not bring poets back from under the shadow of Whitman. What Dylan lacks a proper category and here, I think, the Nobel folks shoe horn him into a classification that is and will remain an awkward fit.
Bob Dylan is a very rich and very, very famous International Rock Star and his being given the highest literary award there is indicates the Academy was more star struck in their decision than awestruck by his actual writing. One cannot, of course, diminish Dylan's achievement, but the innovations, breakthroughs and creations he is responsible for and which influenced nearly every songwriter since his arrival are a songwriter, a different art altogether. As has been mentioned by many others, his lyrics are not the poetry we read when there's a need to get beyond the clatter and commotion and investigate perceptions between the words. That is, poetry that makes music from the meaning and intimations created with the language, not the notes of a scale. Dylan's lyrics, often resonant with his minimal melodies and effectively dramatized by his nasal, reedy vocals, are merely flat when off the page, to oneself. As lines of poetry, they do not move, swerve, or undulate, they lack their own rhythm, they generally create no cadence. They are, though, effective, very effective, and moving in Dylan's best material. He is not TS Eliot, his is not Marianne Moore, he is not LeRoi Jones, he is not Walt Whitman, he is not John Ashbery, he is not Frank O'Hara, poets whose work are respective delights to read , sans music. This is to say that Dylan's genius is something to behold, but it is not literature.
This is like a sports statistic with an asterisk after the name. It could be , as well, a slap to our face, considering a Nobel Judge Horace Engdahl, famously remarked in 2008 that American writers are second rate compared with their European counterparts" The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining." So rather than deal with our rich selection of poets, novelists, playwrights who are deserving , the award goes to Dylan. What this means is that given the amount of time its taken the Nobel Committee to come around and present one of our own as worthy of being a Nobel Laureate, we are pretty much assured that Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth are forever out of the running.