Has literature been redefined?
Maybe. Or perhaps it would be better to say the Swedish Academy has attempted to refine or realign it.
Remember those standardized tests with the funny looking analogy questions?
All those colons lined up and just reveling in the mystery they provided? With four choices, at least two of which sounded plausible? There’s plenty of people younger than me who don’t remember those questions because they have been removed from most standardized tests, even from college entrance exams such as the SAT exam.
Analogy questions were formed like this:
Birds : crow ::
A) Dogs : cat
B) Reptile : fish
C) Fruit : banana
D) House : Garage
The answer is C. The colons are shorthand for is/are to and as. So birds are to crows as fruit is to banana.
(That’s the serious part of this post — the rest is just for fun.)
Music: literature :: speech : email
What does this analogy have to do with anything?
Well, let’s ask the Nobel Committee for Literature. In case you haven’t heard, they’ve awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan for his body of musical achievement. But don’t hold your breath waiting for an explanation from the committee on how music fits into the literature category, because the Nobel Foundation restricts information about the nominations for 50 years. In 2066, check back with the Swedish Academy.
Meantime, we get to speculate, and we have only the committee’s official statements to go by. Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature
for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition
The Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, also said:
He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition
she references his “brilliant way of rhyming and pictorial thinking” as support for his selection.
You can see the interview with Danius on youtube here, in which the answer to the question Has the Swedish Academy widened the horizon of the Nobel Prize in Literature is “it may look that way but really we haven’t” — basis Homer and Sappho having written texts meant to be sung which we still read today.
Well, ok then, that’s one point of view. Rather, it is at least 10 points of view, because the committee of 18 members must agree on the selection by at least a simple majority.
So back to that analogy thing
The Swedish Academy appears to have fallen into the trap we see in other areas: convergence.
We’ve seen our phones, pagers, emails, cameras, calendars, address books, and more being built into one device–the smartphone–which is an example of technological convergence.
I often hear someone say “I talked” to someone, but when asked about the topic, the next statement is “I haven’t got a response back yet”–which is an example of conceptual convergence. That is, communication can be in person, by phone, via speech, text, email, instant message, skype, or other app–and we refer to it all collectively as if it were one. I talked to them. If someone at work says “I talked to so-and-so today” there’s a pretty good chance they can forward me an email of the conversation.
The Swedish Academy is apparently having a moment of artistic convergence, in which musical accomplishment has been equated to literary accomplishment.
In fact, music — presumably still limited to the kind that comes with lyrics — has enough overlap with other verbal utterances (written or otherwise) that this part of the musical spectrum has overlapped with literature.
This leaves the instrumentalist musicians out in the cold, as that is probably a stretch too far to be called literature — though given the mathematical nature of music, perhaps the economics committee ought to take note of the workings of instrumental music.
Purists take heart
In the grand scheme of things, speech and email and text messages are not interchangeable nor are they one in effectiveness or efficiency. Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature is unlikely to change the amount of traditional poetry books sold in the world. It’s not likely to cause rock groups and rappers to suddenly sell thousands of bound versions of their lyrics.
The Swedish Academy will briefly be in the news for this decision. This may last longer than typical for Nobel Awards if Dylan (who hasn’t acknowledged the award) doesn’t show up to the ceremony on December 10. If he doesn’t give the required lecture within six months of the award, thereby forfeiting the prize money of approximately $900,000, the award will be back in the news again. Of course, since the Academy has said that Dylan can give a concert instead of a lecture, and he’s still performing often, it should be easy for him to give a concert if he wants. Either way, the news cycle will sweep the Nobel Prize news away until next year’s awards.
Experimentalists take heart
And those of you that like to bend the definitions of genres, within literature or without? You’re winners too.
Text messages and voice mail are both communication. Sappho and Bob Dylan are both singer-songwriter-poets. Concerts can substitute for lectures — a fact I wish my thermodynamics professor had realized.
Convergence has reached at least slightly beyond the mainstream. Your preferred mash-up or experimental push at the boundary of traditionally defined art may be recognized next by whatever self-appointed standard-maintaining body is applicable.
Poetry-sound installations? Performance poetry? Those practicing these and other boundary-pushing, often ephemeral forms of art, may have more chance at recognition.
Perhaps the Swedish Academy will take nominations by video in the future. Maybe I can send them a snapchat.
Disagree with me? Agree?
Feel free to comment. I’ve heard a lot of thoughts already.
One person said “I heard about the nomination but I didn’t know Dylan wrote anything.”
Another said “the Prize Committee is just looking for attention.”
I’ve heard positives — “something popular and poetic got recognized”. And negatives — “people think just by calling something literature they make it so”
Personally, in a world full of so many opportunities to recognize written work, I think the Prize Committee flubbed a chance to bring under-recognized treasures to light.
What do you say?