Since the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to septuagenarian singer/songwriter Bob Dylan sometime last month, there’s been an outbreak of controversy. To put it succinctly: all hell broke loose. Baffled writers have commented; appalled observers continuously take to social media to profess their outrage; a few comedians have made jokes. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka remarked: ‘Since I’ve written quite a number of songs for my plays, I would like to be nominated for a Grammy.’ Bob himself didn’t acknowledge the award for weeks.
The Swedish Academy, did, in fact, make a great decision – as Indian author Salman Rushdie suggests – in picking a pop artiste for a literature prize. Its decision defies all notions of conventionality, and in so doing stuns the world in a fresh way. For us at Novel Afrique, it was a pleasant surprise.
The amazing thing about the world – and particularly this present generation – is that it just keeps getting more and more liberal. And one way to look at liberality is as a challenge to conventional ideas. We applaud these liberal ideas. We live in a world where people are starting to recognize the rights of LGBT people; some rich countries like Canada – and certain states in the U.S. – have legalised the selling and use of marijuana, which had hitherto been a major no-no. In 2013, Adichie gave the We Should All be Feminists talk and, more than anything, challenged the African notion that women have a duty to submit to men – to much acclaim. Also, in 2014, Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go, gave a speech titled Don’t Ask Where I’m From, Ask Where I’m a Local, attacking the long-standing idea that people come from countries. She said, ‘How can I come from a nation? How can a human being come from a concept?’ And so, it was with this liberal mind that we read – and accepted – the news of Dylan’s awarding. Keyword: ‘liberal’.
The idea that literature is restricted to its conventional forms such as novels and plays and poetry is a very erroneous one, especially since it distracts the mind from other manifestations of literature. And the term ‘literature’ is broadly defined. According to the Advanced English Dictionary, it is ‘any creative writing of recognised artistic value.’ This, for us – and for the purpose of this argument – is the best way to look at Literature. It is, simply, any creative writing. And song-writing is – or at least should be recognised as – creative writing. And particularly Dylan’s song-writing. Let the lyrics speak for themselves:
The pale moon rose in its glory
Out on the Western town
She told a sad, sad story
Of the great ship that went down
It was the fourteenth day of April
Over the waves she rode
Sailing into tomorrow
To a golden age foretold
The above lines are from Tempest, a 2012 song in an album of the same title. It doesn’t matter whatever form it is published in: whether on a blog, or in a book, or sung as song, this is poetry. If it is not, what else could it be? Besides, Dylan, who has won 12 Grammy awards, has been honoured as one of the greatest living poets. So: why is there a problem with him winning the Nobel Prize in Literature?
Perhaps because there are many other candidates, novelists and playwrights and conventional poets, whom we would rather had gotten the award. Obviously, there are good reasons why many people think these people deserve the prize, and the question they ask is: when there are a lot of worthy well-known writers, why did the Swedish Academy go all the way to music to award a literature prize? But that is not quite the right question.
The above question distracts from a single fact: that literature, as aforestated, is broad, much broader than many people let themselves imagine. And it keeps getting broader. For example, when the boundaries of literature were set many centuries ago, screenplays were not included. Screenplays are a recent invention, made popular in the early 20th century by Thomas Harper Ince, who was reputed to have made over 800 films. Today, good screenplays have found a way to be recognized as literature – or at least are trying to. And so should music. Good music, like Dylan’s.
If there is no question that Dylan’s sort of music belongs in the literary picture, and none about the sheer beauty of his works, is it not then an unforgiveable error of omission that he, and many other singers/songwriters like him, have not until now been considered for any literature prize? (And by this, what is meant is a prize that is generally awarded for literature, and not specifically for fiction, or first books, or whatever.) This, we believe, is the right question to ask.
Yes, the boundaries of different art forms are rigidly set, especially in awarding prizes – so, in that way, Wole Soyinka might not actually get the Grammy award that he wants; and anyway, Dr. Maya Angelou once won a Grammy for a recorded version of one of her poems – but we need to reset the boundaries of literature; to challenge conventional ideas. We need to become liberal in that sense, too. And perhaps that is what the Swedish Academy is trying to do. Last year, it awarded the same prize to a reporter. This year, it goes to a singer/songwriter. Next year it should go to a screenwriter; there’s quite a number to choose from. That, for us, would be what is fair and just.
Cover design by Akeem Alawoki.