Bob Dylan does not deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature.
He does deserve the many Grammys he has received, including a lifetime achievement award, which he won in 1991. He unquestionably belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 1988 along with the Supremes, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys. He is a wonderful musician, a world-class songwriter, and an enormously influential figure in American culture.
But by awarding the prize to him, the Nobel committee is choosing not to award it to a writer, and that is a disappointing choice.
Yes, Mr. Dylan is a brilliant lyricist. Yes, he has written a book of prose poetry and an autobiography. Yes, it is possible to analyze his lyrics as poetry. But Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer. As reading declines around the world, literary prizes are more important than ever. A big prize means a jump in sales and readership even for a well-known writer. But more than that, awarding the Nobel to a novelist or a poet is a way of affirming that fiction and poetry still matter, that they are crucial human endeavors worthy of international recognition.
Popular music is such an endeavor too, but, for the most part, it already receives the recognition it deserves. And apart from a few spoken-word awards, no one would expect the highest honors in music to go to a writer — we won’t be seeing Zadie Smith or Mary Gaitskill in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The committee probably did not mean to slight fiction or poetry with its choice. By honoring a musical icon, the committee members may have wanted to bring a new cultural currency to the prize and make it feel relevant to a younger generation.