Changing mental maps

| Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on October 14, 2016

With Dylan’s Nobel, literature’s most coveted award has become inclusive and contemporary

The Nobel Prize has suddenly begun to look relevant again. Relevant, refreshed and contemporary. By awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to music icon Bob Dylan, the Swedish Academy has struck the right chord, energising the world’s most prestigious awards, and breaking down subversive silos. The world’s most prestigious literary award had been getting somewhat humdrum and predictable of late — though there have been occasional deviations, as when Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Routine laudatory articles are written about the prize winners, and there’s a comfortable conventionality to the whole thing. Politicians and activists or organisations usually get the Peace Prize, just as writers and poets get the literature award. Amongst all the Nobels awarded, the literature category is the most contentiously debated one. Much of the debate stems from the criterion laid down by Alfred Nobel in his will that the award should go to the person “who shall have produced in the field of literature the most distinguished work of an idealistic tendency”. The ‘idealistic’ word has caused much heartburn and was the reason that writers such as Tolstoy may never have got the coveted honour. On that count, at least Dylan’s choice should be perfect, for who else has had such a profound impact on those rebelling against war? So many peace marchers have walked to the tune of Blowing in the Wind. And A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall in the Vietnam years moved America to tears.

With Dylan, the Swedish Academy has managed to break boundaries. Last year, Gillian Tett, a financial journalist with a PhD in cultural anthropology, in her compelling book The Silo Effect, showed that working in a structural fog had caused the 2008 financial crisis and argued that the world needed to unshackle itself from categorisation. That certainly holds true for literature, which needed to burst out of its self-imposed narrow definitions. Today, in the era of Kindles and 140 character social media, the nature of literature has changed. Lyricism is intact, but the forms have changed. And it’s wise that the Nobel Prize jury has acknowledged it, awarding Dylan for “poetic expression”.

In a way, there is a certain elitism to the Nobel Prize award. It’s the Holy Grail. Anybody who has won it wears a halo for life. But that in itself adds to the remoteness of the award for the 7.3 billion people living on the planet whose sense of involvement with literary matters is at best tenuous. Bob Dylan’s award has cut through geographies uniting people as only music can. By thinking out of the box, and widening the field, the Nobel committee has at last become more inclusive.

Published on October 14, 2016
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