Upper Valley Academics, Artists React to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

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    File photo dated 3/7/2010 of American singer Bob Dylan, who has been hailed as "a great poet in the English-speaking tradition" following his surprise win of the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/Zuma Press/TNS) Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/14/2016 12:13:34 AM
Modified: 10/14/2016 12:13:42 AM

Hanover — The times they are a-changin’, as is evidenced by Bob Dylan’s win of the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, the first time such an honor has been bestowed on a songwriter instead of the more traditional field of novelists and poets.

In the Upper Valley, musicians and academics talked about whether song lyrics can be considered great literature, and why Dylan has been singled out above any other songwriter in history.

Alexander Chee, an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College, said the controversial Nobel nod is likely to stir debate for years to come.

“I can see both why they did it, and also why someone like (novelists) Phillip Roth, Haruki Murakami and Joyce Carol Oates might be pretty angry,” Chee said. “It’s not so often that an American receives a prize, and now it probably won’t happen again for quite some time.”

Chee said the Nobel committee is hoping to create a debate that encourages everyone to think about how they define literature.

“It’s often the case that an award goes to stimulate a conversation rather than to simply acknowledge the work of a writer, and I think that’s definitely what we see with the choices the Nobel Prize have made, especially in recent years,” he said

Others in Dartmouth’s English department were eager to defend the choice.

”First Svetlana Alexievich, and then Dylan?” Jeff Sharlet, another Dartmouth associate professor of English, tweeted shortly after the news broke on Thursday. “I like this committee. A wake up call for art elites who neglect the art all around us.”

In an email to the Valley News, Sharlet said he was “delighted with this news of the expanding definition of ‘literature.’” 

Sharlet deferred further questions to English Professor Emeritus Louis Renza, a self-proclaimed “Dylanologist” who has taught courses centered on the songwriter’s lyrics for 40 years at Dartmouth.

Renza offered a full-throated endorsement of the concept of song lyrics as Nobel-worthy.

“They constitute what so-called ‘literature’ is always about. Dylan’s song-poems lead listeners into ‘reading’ them: to linger in among their off-centered images and uncanny scenarios; to ponder who we are and that we can’t know,” he wrote in a prepared statement.

“Who’s ‘the man in the long black coat’? or the female other in Simple Twist of Fate. What are the Dylan speaker’s ‘visions of Johanna’?” he asked. “Dylan’s works are special. They raise existentially precise questions, and therefore comprise a kind of spiritual autobiography uniquely related to anyone in our times.”

Chee said his own feelings were mixed.

“The idea of songs as literature is certainly one of the oldest ideas,” said Chee. “It goes all the way back to the time before the written word. But I don’t know. It does seem like kind of an avant garde gesture to me.”

Chee said he hopes that recognizing Dylan with the Nobel might call attention to a period of American songwriting that is being forgotten.

“It’s also true that the kinds of storytelling songs that Dylan is known for are too much a part of the past, and maybe it will inspire a new generation of songwriters, as well as the recording industry,” he said.

To musicians and key players in the local music scene, the news was one more sign that Dylan’s special brand of subversive lyricism really is not just the counter-cultural voice of his generation, but also a message with continued resonance.

“He was rebellious. He created revolution, in a way,” said Sally Laurent, who co-owns Bear Hollow Vintage Guitars in Lebanon with her husband Neil Laurent. “Think about the time in which he created these amazing verses, which of course reflected a very volatile time in history. We’re in another place of volatility.”

“Of course! He’s all about literature,” said Joel Teenyanoff, who manages Frederick Johnson Pianos in White River Junction. “Creativity and originality comes in many forms and this person was very literate.”

Teenyanoff said he felt the elites’ embrace of Dylan wouldn’t undercut the musician’s subversive message.

“Even though he won the Nobel Prize,” he said, “don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.
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