Why did Bob Dylan win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

  • In 2016, the Swedish Academy decided to award the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan.

  • The decision generated an important controversy in the literary sector, between those who defended the singer-songwriter and those who believed that there were writers who had done more merit than him to win the award.

  • The Academy argued that Dylan deserved the award for having “created a new poetic expression within the great American song tradition.”

Throughout its more than one hundred years of history, the Nobel Prize for Literature has rewarded the careers of some of the most outstanding writers of the literary landscape. The award, which is presented every year by the Swedish Academy, was awarded for the first time in 1901, the year in which it went to the French Sully Prudhomme, and since then it has recognized the work of 118 authors from different parts of the world.

Specifically, throughout its history the Nobel Prize for Literature it has fallen on 102 men and only 16 women, being France, with fifteen winners, the most awarded country. Among the winners, we can find authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Günter Grass or Camilo José Cela, all of them indisputable names of the highest literature, but also a very controversial winner which, at the time, generated an important debate about what literature really is.

Bob Dylan, the most controversial winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

We are talking, of course, about Bob Dylan. Considered one of the great figures of contemporary music, the American singer and songwriter was recognized in 2016 with the Nobel Prize for Literaturea controversial decision that took the world of letters by surprise and that divided the sector between those who believed that the singer-songwriter really deserved the award and those who considered that there were many other writers who had done more to receive the prestigious award.

Dylan, whose birth name is Robert Allen Zimmerman, was the 109th person to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Before him, the award went to the Belarusian writer, essayist and journalist Svetlana Aleksievichone of the best portrait artists of the Soviet Union, and then, in 2017, it ended up in the hands of the British writer with Japanese ancestry kazuo ishigurothe author of Never Leave Me and The Remains of the Day (a book on which, by the way, ‘The Remains of the Day’ by James Ivory is based).

Bob Dylan was the first American to win the Nobel Prize since novelist Toni Morrison.TT NYHETSBYRÅN/Cordon Press

Framed between both names, Dylan’s award may seem out of place. And if you take into account that the composer was the first American to win the accolade since 1993In the year that the prize went to Toni Morrison, the author of Beloved and Blue Eyes, her Nobel seems even more surprising.

Behind Bob Dylan’s Nobel, however, there are compelling reasons. In fact, and despite the surprise generated by his appointment, the singer-songwriter was mentioned for years as a possible contender for the award, although due to his work, so far from the canons that governed the Swedish Academy, it was believed that his victory was impossible. Nothing is further from reality, seen what has been seen.

In the words of the Swedish Academy itself, which defined the singer-songwriter as an icon, Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for Literature for “have created a new poetic expression within the great American song tradition”, an irrefutable argument if one takes into account the enormous influence that his compositions have had both on contemporary music and on the creation of many writers who have recognized have been inspired by his songs to shape his works.

Literary critic Sara Danius, a member of the Swedish Academy, also noted that Dylan has been “54 years inventing himself” and stated that his seventh studio album, Blonde to Blonde, is “an extraordinary example of his brilliant way of rhyming, of putting proverbs together, of his brilliant way of thinking”.

The composer, the only musician who, to date, has won the Nobel Prize, received the award three months after the official ceremony of delivery, after not being able to attend the official act due to other commitments that had been previously agreed. In a speech read on his behalf at the official ceremony, yes, he stated that “being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something that he could never have imagined or seen coming.” “If someone had told me that he had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I had the same chance of being on the Moon”he declared.

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Why did Bob Dylan win the Nobel Prize for Literature?