by Fernando J. Contreras
Originally published on Hades United
After Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature, one of the Academy’s members compared him to Homer and Sappho. And if a prestigious representative of literature’s highest honor can establish such links without any substantiation, then why not also say that Bob Dylan is the Pepsi of Major League Baseball, or the iPhone 7 of American heroes? If you’re going to abuse standards to fit your ideology and, like a teenager, fill sentences with superlatives, then keep going until you get to “Bob Dylan is the Bob Dylan of Bob Dylans.”
I should be happy. For years I’ve been writing that literature has stagnated and that it’s boring. I still find it surprising that writers do not take more chances with their work. A book today still reads like a book of decades/centuries ago. The plot’s details and the characters’ dilemmas might reveal struggles from contemporary life, but the formats, frameworks, techniques, and styles haven’t changed. Literature is no longer at the forefront of our culture, yet authors still foster dreams of landing an agent and a book deal, one that will produce a book few will read — a book no one will remember in ten years.
Yet, giving the award to Bob Dylan was a mistake. You can say that Dylan’s songs are poetic, but his lyrics are not written to be read. They are written to be performed with music. You could say the same about a play; however, while many plays gain dimension on the stage, they are also meant to be published and read. You can’t say the same about a screenplay, much less a song.
“I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law
She’s the brains behind pa
She’s sixty-eight, but she says she’s twenty-four
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more”
This is an excerpt from “Maggie’s Farm,” which is featured in the album The Essential Bob Dylan. It’s not necessary to read the rest of the lyrics to understand this song is much richer with music. Unless your name is Maggie and you live in a farm, you won’t be moved. You won’t say, “This song made me think… Oh, that Maggie, that farm… this obviously stands for the fall of Western Civilization, and challenges us to question the limits of our democracy.” However, if we listen to the many ways Dylan performs this song, we’ll appreciate his artistry much more.
Let me put it this way: you’ll never tell your family you’ll be spending some quiet time on your cozy chair by the chimney because you’ll be reading Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, U2’s One, or Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer, and then claim their lyrics alone are as valuable as Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight.
So Bob. Right.
1) Our standards and goals need revamping. Our institutions have eroded to such extent, any alternative sounds promising if it denounces the status quo. We are tired of our classifications of literature, politics, goodness, family, gender, beauty, strength, etc., and as a result, Bob Dylan can win a Nobel Prize in Literature and Donald Trump can run for president of the United States. If this is true, the members of the Swedish academy have rejected the goals of their own academy and have given the finger to themselves.
2) The academy is shaking things up to make itself relevant again. Dylan is a controversial vote, and with controversy comes the headlines, the interviews, and the spotlight. It’s a way of saying, “Stop reading tweets and pay attention to us. We matter.” This is desperate and insecure, but can you name the last three Literature Prize winners from memory? And have you read them?
3) The times, they are a-changin’… just so they can be stayin’ the same. The tired forms — poetry, short story, novel — are no longer desired, at least not in their present form. This is a tricky one because the act of writing and reading stimulates the mind in ways TV, movies, podcasts, and games cannot. The problem is that people don’t know that, and sense that the more modern technologies can deliver the same complex philosophies, but faster and packed with more entertainment.
This is not true. Visual media is also stuck recycling old themes and stories. Yet people are glued to their phones, liking, playing, swiping, judging. How do we convince them to close their snappy apps and read a hundred pages of a creaky, dusty, old technology without making it into a hipster fad?
This feels like a losing war. Reading books is now considered going backwards in the wide roads of progress. So writers must change or move to the realms of the hobbyist. This is the time to use our present technologies to invent new stories, new forms, and new ways to narrate. We have nothing to lose.
For now, we’re stuck with a man who, so far, hasn’t even replied to the Nobel committee’s emails to acknowledge the honor. He’s busy making live music and has no time for minor-league awards.
Also, there are two more parts to Nineteen Eighty Chicken, which I didn’t publish on purpose. I wanted to see if publishing the story in installments would attract a larger readership, but nobody asked me about the next installment after I published Part 3, so the silence was feedback enough. I’ll still post the last two parts this week on Hades United.