Knocking On Nobel’s Door

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

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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.