Southern Festival of Books: Authors sound off on Dylan’s Nobel Prize

by G. Robert Frazier

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan is the first American in two decades to win the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Before the ink was even dry on the announcement earlier this week, camps pro and con began forming. Many have praised his selection as an example of the oral tradition of storytelling, though others say it ignores more deserving authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth. One columnist went so far as to say the Nobel committee’s selection was “boringly predictable.” I asked some authors attending the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville on Friday what they thought:

dscf1231“Who wouldn’t want to win something like that. I find more philosophy in music than in some philosophy. Some of the most impactful lines I’ve ever heard or read are in music, so I get it. But, it does kind of defy the category. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not absolutely life-changing. I mean, some of his songs to me were mind-blowing. But by definition, is it literature? I don’t know. But I do love his stuff.”

Sean Patrick Flanery, actor and author

dscf1107“My only caveat with it is, I don’t think it’s going to help book stores that much. I feel like people are going to go, ‘Oh, I didn’t get his last album,’ and they’re going to go buy the album. I like it when someone like (Wisława) Szymborska wins and everyone goes, ‘Oh, I never read anything by her and I’m going to go buy the book.’”

Erica Wright, author of The Granite Moth

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“I don’t have a strong opinion. I’m not a Dylan fan. I’ve just never been huge into him, so part of me is OK, they get points for creativity for thinking outside the box, but part of me is like books are already a shrinking part of the cultural arts pie, let’s not be giving away one of the few prizes that is dedicated for books.”

Thomas Mullen, author of Darktown

“I love it. Bob Dylan is somebody who actually says something about the world and dscf1096life. Listen to Aaron Neville singing ‘With God On Our Side,’ written by Dylan. To me, that’s such a statement of how we are and who we are. But so much of his music is just beautiful and beautiful poetry. He’s a writer. He deserves it.”

Holly McClure, author of Conjuror

dscf1136“What this means is we are redefining literature to include song lyrics. If what he wrote, if the words he wrote, never had music to them, if they were simply put on the page as poetry, he would not be there. There are hundreds of greater poets. The thing that makes his words powerful in the full is that they are intimately connected to the music. I’m not sure I define literature that way, because the words do not stand on their own. If you just read them on the page, they are wonderful lyrics and there’s wonderful imagery there, but they are not fabulous poems. There are a thousand poets better on the page, so he has to have the music there with it. And that’s fine, that’s not a criticism, to make it a full work of art. But, it’s a redefinition of literature. I’m not putting a value judgment on that, I’m just describing a reality.”

Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author

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“I remember thinking as a younger man when I used to listen to a lot of Dylan, I thought he was a poet in his heart. I have no idea of his qualifications for that prize. It doesn’t offend me. I have no idea what the conversations were in the committee. The guy is a poet. It is a bit odd, but more power to him.”

John Hart, two-time Edgar Award winner

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“Why are we all so stunned and taken aback by this? We think of it as pop culture instead of something worthy of a Nobel Prize. I was only half kidding when I said, does this mean now that maybe Bruce Springsteen can win for literature?”

Alana White, author of Come Next Spring and The Sign of the Weeping Virgin

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“I have to say, I think he’s a genius and brilliant, but I feel sad for Philip Roth and Don DeLillo. I’m not suggesting he isn’t worthy of that, but I really kind of was hoping it was Philip Roth or a number of other people. I know there are Bob Dylan fanatics and I love Bob Dylan, but, to me, it really should be a writer victor. It’s such an honor for people to get that.”

Megan Abbott, author of You Will Know Me

“I think it’s pretty cool. I think it’s nice that they recognize song lyrics as a form of poetry and I think Bob Dylan has a pretty long history of your deeper than average song lyric.”

Kay Iscah, author of Seventh Night and editor of Tomato Slices

“I guess they’re going to sell a lot more tickets at the Hall of Fame now. He is definitely a street poet. A lot of people consider him to be similar to the French street poets. His longevity can’t be questioned.”

Randy Rudder, author, screenwriter and TV producer

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“I absolutely love it. I can quote so much more of him than I can of Dario Fo or Wole Soyinka. (Dylan) is somebody who has really spoken to people and changed their lives. I think that’s what Mr. Nobel intended. A lot of times the Nobel prizes are given to scold somebody . If China misbehaves, a Chinese dissident gets the Nobel prize. In this one, I couldn’t see very much of a political angle.”

Sharyn McCrumb, author of Prayers the Devil Answers

“I think it’s a legitimate thing. The Nobel Prize over the years has not always gone to the classic people like Faulkner, and it’s often gone to people far less legitimate than Bob Dylan. I speak from two ends. I was for many years a music publisher and now I’m a scribbler. So on one level, I’d say it’s about time.”

Robert Hicks, author of The Widow of the South and The Orphan Mother

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“I think it’s great. It opens up a whole new avenue for the Nobel Prize and takes it in a whole new direction. (Dylan) has always been a trendsetter and a groundbreaker all through his career. Hopefully, this is just one more avenue that he’s opened up for authors.”

Tom Wood, journalist and author of Vendetta Stone

“He was one of my heroes and I greatly admired him. I couldn’t ever imagine him winning the Nobel Prize, but I’m happy for him.” – Bill Peach, author and columnist

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“There’s no question that he’s one of the greatest writers of our time. He did it in song, but the stories he told were just as real. I think one of the great things about his stories is other people can tell them and reinterpret them. There’s a depth of meaning there to them. He’s a terrific songwriter and storyteller.”

Robert Mangeot, author and president of Sisters in Crime-Middle Tennessee Chapter

lisa-wysocky“Bob Dylan has permeated every bit of our cultural society for decades. I think it’s an excellent choice because he’s such a visual storyteller and such a visual songwriter. We can’t help but immerse ourselves in his words and his songs and his stories. Kudos to the committee that chose him, because it’s a really great selection.”

Lisa Wysocky, author of the Cat Enright equestrian mystery series

“Bob Dylan has certainly given a great body of work and devoted his life to writing songs that are meaningful to people. He’s a great lyricist, so, Go Bob.” – Beth Terrell, author of A Taste of Blood and Ashes and president of the Southeast Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America

ADDITIONAL READING:

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So, what’s your take? Does Bob Dylan deserve the honor of being named the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature? Join the conversation by posting in the comments below.

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