Remember Phallocentrism? Remember Postcolonialism?: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Clichés and the Diminishment of Literature

Oh, for the heydays of literary theory!

Earlier this month, Bob Dylan, winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, delivered the required lecture just in time for him to collect the nearly $1 million cash award associated with the prize. Speaking in his trademark gravelly voice, Bob Dylan gave the Nobel Prize Committee what they no doubt wanted. Dylan thanked the committee for considering the question whether his songs are literature and answering in the affirmative. Dylan’s lecture was declared “extraordinary and, as one might expect, eloquent” by Secretary Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize. By co-opting the sung into the idea of literature, it seems, Dylan had given the Committee the relevance it craved.

Then again, you should be careful what you ask for. No sooner was the audio recording of the lecture released than charges of plagiarism descended upon Dylan. An essay by Andrea Pitzer in Slate argued that parts of the lecture are eerily similar to what is found on website SparkNotes crib sheets (consulted by countless students taking short cuts in their college education).

I recently had to deal with a student who did pretty much what Dylan seems to have as demonstrated in the Pitzer essay. When I called her in for questioning, it became amply clear that she had in fact plagiarized and had no first-hand knowledge of the works she was commenting on. I suspect nobody’s going to call Dylan in for questioning.

With regard to Dylan’s Nobel lecture, though, plagiarism is only the half of it—the other half is cliché.

Dylan constructs a venerable—and perfectly unimaginative—list of literary works and authors in his lecture. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of Two Cities. Kipling, Shaw, Camus, Hemingway, Shakespeare.

And especially Moby Dick and the Odyssey and All Quiet on the Western Front, about all three of which Dylan speaks extensively (and unoriginally and plagiaristically, it seems) in his lecture.

Bob Dylan is a transcendent musical genius—a voracious student and reinventor of musical form. It might even be argued that his songs can and should be considered literature—after all, as Dylan himself suggests, the exclusion of songs from literature when plays are readily admitted makes no reasonable sense.

Nevertheless, if the committee for the Nobel Prize for Literature was trying for relevance by awarding Bob Dylan, its gambit has badly backfired. The Nobel Prize for Literature, and indeed literature as such, has been diminished by the award to Dylan. The problem is not just the plagiarism. Rather, it is the very idea of literature that Dylan constructs in his lecture.

Taken individually, I can’t argue with Dylan’s list of literary works and luminaries—it has titles and names I have read and loved. Certainly, each of the works on Dylan’s list can be and has been considered “great” (whatever that means); taken together, however, the list induces nothing so much as a yawn. It is the reading list of a frighteningly conventional high school curriculum—one constructed in perfect ignorance of developments in the study of literature, indeed of “literature” itself understood in any meaningful sense today.

The list is perfectly conventional—and perfectly Eurocentric and patriarchal. There is not a single non-white or non-European or non-North American figure or text—no Frederick Douglass or the Ramayana or the Arabian Nights. There is not a single woman—no Sappho or Jane Austen or Mirabai (talk about song as literature). There is not even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the greatest of Nobel laureates.

But here’s the thing: just because Dylan hasn’t read the West African Epic of Sonjara doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And just because he doesn’t know anything about the critiques of phallocentrism and Eurocentrism made decades ago in the best iterations of literary theory doesn’t mean a richer and more adequate idea of literature isn’t available should you want to find it.

Surely, the predicament of literature—assaulted from different sides by celebrity culture, commodification, more popular arts (music!), superficiality and a myriad other challenges—is dire. Irrelevance doubtless threatens. However, the path to relevance does not lie through plagiarism and cliché.

Bob Dylan is bigger than the Nobel Prize for Literature. The award has enhanced him but literature itself has been diminished.

[See also an earlier companion blog–KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCKIN’ ON HEAVEN’S DOOR (WHY BOB DYLAN SHOULD HAVE BEEN REFUSED ADMITTANCE TO THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE)]

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