Knocking On Nobel’s Door

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AHIR SHAH asks why Bob Dylan didn't win the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1913, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore became the first non-European recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Prize was awarded to him largely in response to a collection of poems entitled Gitanjali, or “Song Offerings”. In his introduction to the first Western publication of Gitanjali, W. B. Yeats recounts a conversation with a Bengali doctor, who said of Tagore: “All the inspiration of mankind are in his hymns […] He is as great in music as he is in poetry, and his songs are sung from the west of India into Burmah wherever Bengali is spoken.”

Nearly a century on, there was a sense that the Swedish Academy might once again award the Prize in recognition of a collection of song offerings. After receiving a plethora of awards over the last five decades acknowledging both his songwriting as well as his formidable cultural impact, Bob Dylan was seen as a frontrunner to claim the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature; a prize that ultimately eluded him.

The Academy have, for many years, been dogged by accusations of bias against non-European writers, flames that may well be fanned by their decision to award this year’s Prize to the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer (despite the fact that Tranströmer has been nominated for the award every year since 1993). However, regardless of whether or not such a bias exists, the question remains as to whether or not a songwriter can reasonably be judged against poets and novelists for the purposes of awarding a literary prize. Would a European lyricist have fared any better?

I believe it would have been extremely difficult for the Swedish Academy to judge Bob Dylan’s work in the same way they judged the other nominees. Dylan composed his poetry, then set it to music and recorded it. While one may remove the liner notes from an album in order to read his lyrics, the first experience that almost all people have of Dylan is as a listener. As such, one is exposed not only to the tone and rhythm of his poetry, but also that of his music, along with its instrumentation, dynamics, key. The strains and cracks in his voice do not spring from the page: we actually hear them.


The musicality in Tagore’s Song Offerings is conjured internally, a response to the written word. However, when I read Dylan’s lyrics, I hear them sung, and sung in his voice. To read Dylan’s work as one might read Tranströmer, one would have to have never listened to a Dylan record. Perhaps the Academy simply thought that in order to assess Dylan’s relative literary merits, they would first have to do the impossible, and unhear him.

And yet, over the day leading up to the Prize announcement, Ladbrokes slashed Dylan’s odds of victory from 100/1, to 10/1, to 5/1. A surge of betting meant that the bookmakers faced a substantial payout should he take the prize.

So there you have it: perhaps the one reason behind Bob Dylan’s failure to win the Nobel Prize for Literature that we can all agree on. I’m definitely, definitely not saying that Ladbrokes bribed the Swedish Academy to award the Prize to Tomas Tranströmer in order to avoid losing a hefty sum of money; to draw such a conclusion from the facts presented in the paragraph above would simply be obvious, logical, and libellous. But do, at the very least, take what you have gathered from coincidence.

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  • Weird argument

    'Dylan composed his poetry, then set it to music and recorded it.' How do you know this? It's quite difficult to say with confidence what part of his creative process came first; is it not more likely that he composed the music first and then set the words to it? It's what he did with 'Blowin' in the Wind', at least. 'Song writing' involves both the writing of the music and the lyrics, which makes Dylan an entirely different sort of lyricist to other literary 'poets'. Your comparison to Tagore is pretty dubious.

  • corpusenglish

    err, if ladbrokes actually had bribed the nobel committee they wouldn't have slashed their odds.

    • and yet

      depends on the order of events, really


    These are just words.

    Plz do not market them as anything else in future.


  • Eli

    Intelligence IS genetic, but it doesn’t mean that intelligent people always have intelligent offspring. Go back to GCSE biology.

    • hc

      So clearly, as the article states, intelligence isn’t ENTIRELY genetic then. Go back to Key Stage One literacy.

  • Josh

    The reason why Uni of is seen as better is it’s greater involvement in research, which then trickles down to its students. Whilst Hallam students may be taught more vocational skills, and can do them very well, uni of students are taught how to learn and interact with the research community, allowing them to continue at the ‘cutting edge’ so to speak. However this does mean that generally more vocational skills are lacking. This relationship means that the graduates of the two are very different, but with Uni of graduates taking the more ‘high end’ roles, especially in academia, it is easy to understand which uni has got their learning ethos correct. I would have hoped that this article would have provided some of this insight but was unfortunately lacking

    • Lars

      The simple fact that you believe that Hallam does not contribute to research is bewildering. Their academy of sport and physical activity is one at the forefront of its particular field of research. To but it in lehmans terms it is up there doing joint research with Loughborough university


    Finally a fellow uni of student that speaks sense! However I believe ‘your dad works for my dad’ is a dig at socio economic class, suggesting that people from a poorer background are less successful and only able to get into a polytechnic. I think this issue itself needs it’s own article or even a book written on it. A book which can then be used to beat classist people over the head with.

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