Opinion | Dylan’s win reboots the Nobel Prize for Literature

By Rowland Scherman (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
Folk singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform during a civil rights rally in Washington D.C., 1963.

Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. Validation at last for the voice of a generation; another trophy in a cabinet already boasting golden globes, grammys, oscars, and even the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Now Dylan has earned the right to take his place among the pantheon of great Nobel Laureates.

It remains unclear whether the Lucky Wilbury will actually accept the prize; others like Jean Paul Sartre have refused to do so. Sartre declared that “a writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form”. But Dylan already is an institution, and his attitude and openness to receiving awards in the past suggests that he will take it.

Irvine Welsh, himself a well-known, celebrated writer of some renown, has described this year’s decision as “an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies”. But is he right? Could this be the last gasp of a dying animal fearing irrelevance, who believe that, by making a musician a Nobel Laureate, a new audience – a new generation – might be inspired? The Nobel Prize for Literature may have just been rebooted.

Who knows. There will always be for and against, the yay and nay. There will always be champions and the vanquished. Scanning through the list of winners since the prize’s inception reveals one side of the story: there are notable recipients, including Rudyard Kipling, W.B Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Ernest Hemingway. But there is another side; the side which tells of the non-awarded greats: Tolstoy, Kafka, Twain, Chekhov and James Joyce were some of the most mindblowing writers of all time, and are each absent from the list. For Joyce the prize was always ‘just out of reach’. Tolstoy and Chekhov are said to have lost out on account of Sweden’s historic antipathy towards Russia.

The list goes on. I wonder now if, in the future, we will we see other inspiring lyricists of our time honoured with the prize. Could the great Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits achieve the same? Or is this a one-off; a never to be repeated anomaly? Perhaps Dylan really is just that special.

But to quote the man himself, ‘things have changed’; and now we are quite unsure – and quite excited – about the boundaries which the Nobel Prize for Literature might challenge in the future.


Graham Mooney is a musician and a father who regularly writes for State Magazine. He is the lead singer of the band Atlas Moon, based in Dublin, Ireland.