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December 11, 2016

The Uneasy Relationship Between Literary Influence and Fame

Text by Supriya Nair. Illustration by Hari Kumar Nair

Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature has shone a light on this equation

Fifty years from now, we’ll be waiting in the Cloud, for a data stream to emit the name of the next winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. A split-second of silence before the announcement. Let’s say it’s Kendrick Lamar. Our collective intelligence will explode in a light-storm of blips and flashes. He’s won it, they’ll say, for ‘his astonishing rhetorical fluidity and dramatic reimagination of selfhood’ or for being ‘the voice of a movement’ or some other legitimate praise.

Over the following weeks, the discourse will pick itself apart on the question of whether hip-hop qualifies as poetry, on how Kanye West was robbed, and on the minutiae of the quality and longevity of K-Dot’s rhymes. People under the age of 30 will be asking, ‘Kendrick who?’

I spun this fantasy out for a few days after the announcement of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize. I don’t know much about hip-hop, but nothing in recent years has moved and provoked me the way Lamar’s blockbuster 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly has. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences had finally come around, half a century after Bob Dylan’s best work, to the view that a singer with a guitar could also be a poet. Surely only two generations more need to pass before the radical literary possibilities of hip-hop seem worthy of recognition to a future committee of ageing, well-educated European jurors?

Every year, the Nobel Prize for Literature goes to a writer whose work pleases the tastes, historical affinities and political preferences of a small, non-diverse jury. It’s only on the rare occasion when this jury decides to play its own version of a prank that the prejudices become apparent. Neither Dylan’s prize, nor the cacophonous response to it is likely to change anything about the award or its own future. If anything, it’s an indication of how ideas of literary importance grow and change in public memory.

How different Dylan is from other Nobel Laureates has more to do with the form in which he works than the influence that it commands. In this respect, the divergence in standards is stark. Dylan is hardly the first person to win the prize for his broadcasting services. The prolific Winston Churchill was named a Literature Laureate in spite of his alarmingly bad books: the Academy thought this was the least it could do for the man who gave the ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ address.

Dylan won no wars, but he did win the prize for being a rock star — not a famous writer, like Alice Munro or Toni Morrison. How else, for better or verse (sorry), could his songs have changed our language itself? But the celebrity prize is neither unprecedented in Nobel history, nor is celebrity a certain disqualifier. Shakespeare, whose words have long since become muscle in the body of our vocabulary, would have been dust if his dramas hadn’t been popular.

Still, the relationship between literary influence and fame is so uneasy that it’s best that the Swedish Academy goes back to business as usual for the next 50 years, picking worthy Asians, obscure Europeans and the occasional superaccomplished woman writer to give their awards to. A prize with a history as long and frankly dubious as the Literature Nobel can’t have fun every year.

Dylan, his Nobel citation says, changed ‘the great American song tradition’. It has, of course, changed again in the time it took for the award to arrive at his doorstep. Most significantly, the African-American tradition from which he and his peers borrowed dominates dreams and dance floors around the world today.

Fifty years from now, it will have changed again. Perhaps only a set of jurors, their young minds blown by what they heard in the formative years of their lives, will wish to redeem the future with a throwback to their past. May they choose well. ‘The Devil wanna put me in a bow tie / Pray that the holy water don’t go dry,’ as an American poet once said (It’s actually — yes — Kendrick Lamar).

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