The Onerous Popular

Bob Dylan, or Robert Zimmerman, has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I use the man’s original name only to highlight the difference between those great writers of the past who’ve written under cognomens (Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Pablo Neruda, Georges Orwell and Eliot, etc.) and Bob Dylan. In all of the previous cases, pen names were fashioned out of a desire for anonymity — in Dylan’s case, for popularity.

Traditionally, pop is not the tack of a literary writer, who has to at least be unpopular in the act of writing, and should almost always resist it should it befall him afterwards. The Nobel has been a great friend of literature for a long time, championing writers unknown or barely known to the reading public at large. This year, the Nobel committee awarded their Prize in Literature to a celebrity.

This seems to happen all the time in the Peace Prize annals but has rarely (if ever?) happened in Literature (writers like Hemingway and Steinbeck were popular when they got their prize, but they had built their oeuvres long before that happened, and generally wanted to get away from it when it did). This is a prize, after all, and people like Bob Dylan do not need prize money. Almost all great writers do (or at least could put it to good use). One would like to think an organization as financially safe as the Nobel wouldn’t have to worry about pleasing its fans (again, the Peace Prize perhaps the exception).

Which isn’t to say that Dylan isn’t great (though he isn’t a great writer). He is a great musician and lyricist and an icon and one of the cultural heroes of the 20th Century. This is no criticism of him or his work. Popularity is necessary for the entertainer, and Dylan is one of our greatest ever. The early Beatles were another. Beyonce, in our day — I’d call her the modern-day Dylan — is another.

Yet, if popularity is going to control everything in our modern life, from the news to culture to politics, can we not expect a little respite in the realm of the arts? We are now solidly in the Age of the Internet, where popularity equals value. We see it in the Oscars, the Grammys, the Pulitzer, and in every other prize that has abdicated its hold on critical Taste, ceded its authority to the authority of pop, of social media, of big data, of the entire publicity-crazed Millennial Generation. Popularity always wins in the shortsighted short-term, but it used to leave the longview to the true greats, and the Nobel was seen to be its antagonist.

The poet Robinson Jeffers (one of the numerous Nobel snubs), perhaps predicting this takeover, goes one step further. As he wrote in “Let Them Alone”, just before Bob Dylan emerged as if by magic out of the nation’s middle:

If God has been good enough to give you a poet
Then listen to him. But for God’s sake let him alone until he is dead; no prizes,
 no ceremony,
They kill the man. A poet is one who listens
To nature and his own heart; and if the noise of the world grows up around 
 him, and if he is tough enough,
He can shake off his enemies, but not his friends.

But popularity is hard not to love. Its seductions are many. To believe in popularity is most of all to abdicate personal responsibility (or to plausibly deny it, or ironically condemn it). We turn to popularity at times so as not to look like fools, to always have an escape route, to never feel ‘alone’. Pop is decision-less. It has the aura of inevitability.

It has transformed the world of news journalism, much of which is now dictated by ‘social media’, that is, popular media. What is most popular gets heard, and what is not, doesn’t. Newspapers and news television formerly exercised a level of discretion, of independent taste. This was many times bigoted, or narrow-minded. The internet thankfully allows diversity through the door but unfortunately throws discretion out the window.

In politics there has been a similar trend. Each election becomes more and more a contest between popular conceptions of personal character. In the most recent presidential debate, every answer was a sound bite indicative of a race of popularity, not of the issues the candidates would presumably be tasked with confronting if chosen as head of state. At the same time, the “moderators” again and again derived (and justified) their questions from the most popular issues on facebook and twitter posts, as if the entire point was to reiterate to an uninformed populace what they already think they know.

Popularity in politics can also come with a large lack of discretion. The Republican Party has recently found this out the hard way. Political populism frequently ends up in disarray. Populism in the arts is oxymoronic. Artworks are made by individuals to be engaged with by other individuals. There is no room for a crowd. It’s fun to sing along to “Like A Rolling Stone” at a concert, but first we listen to the record alone (in our own heads even if others are in the room), numerous times. Before we see and hear Bob Dylan playing and singing it, Robert Zimmerman has written the song by himself, for himself. Artworks can become popular just as Presidents can, but they are not (or shouldn’t be) made that way (though some of Dylan’s songs were).

Which is not to say that pop can’t innovate. Occasionally it does. But it usually takes its cue from the more obscure arts, as Dylan did with folk and blues, which few people were listening to before he transformed them into pop. Many of Dylan’s lyrics are woven with great imagery and rhyme and rhythm. Others are akin to a man throwing paints at a canvas. Sometimes it works beautifully, sometimes not. There is artistry in it, but not the artistry of the writer, certainly not of the poet, for whom capriciousness and/or lack of control over one’s work, and one’s words, is perhaps the greatest evil.

Whether or not one thinks it’s fine to award the Prize in Literature to a musician, one feels (or I do, at any rate) that the Nobel committee wasn’t doing it to recognize Dylan’s true musical genius, that of the folk singer-songwriter, but rather his advertising one, that of the popular American mythmaker. The news of the award was, predictably, all over the front pages. So the Nobel gets to have its day. And once again the unknown poets of the world can, albeit with a sigh and a bit of chagrin, rejoice at another year of solace and anonymity, gratefully unchosen.