Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Insults Both Literature and Music

Aparna Alankar

It has been about one week since American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. The prize was officially given to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The decision by the Academy was immediately controversial — with one side painting the decision as a proverbial middle finger to those who claimed the Academy was implicitly biased against American authors, and the other side defending Dylan’s position as a pioneer in American expression. Regardless of whether or not you consider him worthy of the title of author, everyone can agree that Dylan’s primary medium is music, not literature. With this in mind, it seems as if the decision of the Academy to award Bob Dylan the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature is a decision to ignore the greatest part of his work.

The merit of Dylan’s work comes not just from his lyrics but also through the music and voice by which these words are brought to life. Music as a medium of expression is not the same as the written word. There has recently been an emergence of what scholars call “hybrid forms” in literature. The term refers to the combination of fiction and nonfiction, reality and fiction, drama and history, etc., but it also describes the blurring of the line between song and narrative and other mediums. However, Dylan’s songs are not hybrid forms. A typical ballad could be considered a hybrid form because it is usually a written transcription of what was first spoken or sung out loud. It is meant equally to be read and sung and heard. Furthermore, the written facet of the work contributes to the merit of the final work as much as the auditory portion does.

Bob Dylan’s songs are different. Like almost every other musician, Dylan composed his work with the primary intention of being set to music.The auditory impact of Dylan’s work far surpasses the power of merely reading it, which is to be expected, as he is a musician. Therefore, Dylan’s songs are not “hybrid forms” — song in itself is a medium that requires the writing of lyrics before they can be put to music, meaning that the lyrics cannot stand out by themselves as an individual work. To award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature is to take a fragment of his work and raise it above everything else he has done.

If the Academy wishes to honor Bob Dylan, they need to create a separate award for music. Grouping music together with literature does a disservice to both forms and their respective artists and authors.

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  1. Dear Aparna:

    While I tend to agree that it seems a bit awkward to have awarded a musician/songwriter the Nobel for Literature, it is something that is not new. The Nobel was also awarded to Rabindranath Tagore in 1913 for his poetry, a majority of which he composed as songs. Granted, Tagore was more than just a songwriter – with volumes of prose, essays, novels and plays authored by him – but his collection of poems in “Geetanjali”, which means “Song Offerings” in Bengali, is what got the Nobel Committee’s attention.

    Secondly, contrary to what you’ve mentioned, song does not require the lyrics to be written first. The reverse is true – melodies and harmonies are first conceived and later the words are designed to fit into the required structure. That in and of itself, is a work of tremendous literary achievement, if the words themselves serve as shining examples of poetry, when read as such – very true in Dylan’s case. The same desire for the perfection of written craft is present in the pursuit of the lyrical form, as that for a novel, essay or other more traditional works that we may think of as Literature.


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