I must admit I did a double take when I saw the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Like many other people, I was assuming a novelist, poet or play write would be named, and had my hopes pinned on Haruki Murakami, who was one of the favourites and a writer I particularly like. I’m a reader who’s not really that into music, and I’m unfamiliar with Bob Dylan’s work. The word “literature” to me has little connection with song writing – its meaning to me is definitely more about stories, novels, characters, imagination. In a word, books. So I began to ask myself, is song writing literature?
Many people have expressed shock, and in some cases disappointment, at Dylan’s award for “outstanding contribution to the field of literature.” There is an argument over whether song writers are poets or not, and the argument itself seems very cut and dry. Either song writers are poets, therefore Dylan is deserving, or they are not poets, meaning he is undeserving. But just because he is not a poet, or an author, does that also mean he is not a writer of literature?
Perhaps lyrics aren’t poetry at all, or if they are, they are a very specific type. Much as there are good books and bad books, there are good songs and bad songs, songs whose words don’t fit the rhythm. I’ll admit I don’t ever sit and read song lyrics without music (does anyone?) – I access them via the music they were written for. And because they are words written with the specific purpose of being heard with music rather than read silently, I feel that lyrics and poetry are two quite different things, but that one can be just as well written as the other. Poetry too has a strong connection to being read aloud, as opposed to merely in silence. I started to think about songs that have stuck in my mind in the same way some novels do, and what it is about them that made them so memorable. Two examples are Jamie Lawson’s Wasn’t Expecting That, a song which moved me to tears when I first heard it, and at the other end of the spectrum, Eminem’s Stan – the cleverness of the wordplay really struck me. Both of these songs have strong stories and characters, which is probably why I like them. And I can appreciate the difficulty of writing an entire story in what only amounts to a few lines – microfiction to music.
But back to the question of literature. I think what I really want to ask is not whether we can classify a type of writing as this or that, but rather, what do we actually want from literature? Something engaging, something that captures our imagination, that makes us think, that inspires new ideas, that allows us to escape into another word, experiencing something we otherwise wouldn’t. We want something that stays with us long after we’ve finished reading, either because it made us laugh or made us cry or taught us something new, or it simply made us appreciate the effort that went into creating it. Good writing is intricate, clever, subtle, emotive, thought provoking, funny, profound… Sometimes all at once. Taking this as a list of criteria, could a song too not be classed as literature?
[As an aside, what bothers me more about the Nobel Prize for Literature is the fact that of the 113 individuals who have been awarded it, only 14 have been women. Surely this is more newsworthy than the fact that the 2016 winner is a song writer?]