London: Singer and songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, in the words of the Swedish Academy.
He is the first American to win since the novelist Toni Morrison, in 1993. The announcement, in Stockholm, came as something of a surprise. Although Dylan, 75, has been mentioned often as having an outside shot at the prize, his work does not fit into the literary canons of novels, poetry and short stories that the prize has traditionally recognised.
“Mr. Dylan’s work remains utterly lacking in conventionality, moral sleight of hand, pop pabulum or sops to his audience,” the former Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman wrote in a 2013 essay in The New York Times arguing for Dylan to get the award. “His lyricism is exquisite; his concerns and subjects are demonstrably timeless; and few poets of any era have seen their work bear more influence.”
Dylan was born on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, and grew up in Hibbing. He played in bands as a teenager, influenced by the folk musician Woody Guthrie, the authors of the Beat Generation and modernist poets.
He moved to New York in 1961 and began to perform in clubs and cafés in Greenwich Village. The following year, he signed a contract with the record producer John Hammond for his debut album, “Bob Dylan” (1962). His many other albums, which the Swedish Academy described as having “a tremendous impact on popular music,” include “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), “Blonde On Blonde” (1966) and “Blood on the Tracks” (1975), “Oh Mercy” (1989), “Time Out Of Mind” (1997) and “Modern Times” (2006).
“Dylan has recorded a large number of albums revolving around topics like the social conditions of man, religion, politics and love,” the Swedish Academy said in a biographical note accompanying the announcement. “The lyrics have continuously been published in new editions, under the title ‘Lyrics.’ As an artist, he is strikingly versatile; he has been active as painter, actor and scriptwriter.”
The academy added: “Since the late 1980s, Bob Dylan has toured persistently, an undertaking called the ‘Never-Ending Tour.’ Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.”
Dylan, whose original name is Robert Allen Zimmerman, joins a number of American Jews who have been awarded the prize. Unlike Dylan, they were born abroad: Saul Bellow, born in Canada, won in 1976; Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was born in Poland and wrote in Yiddish, won in 1978; Joseph Brodsky, born in the Soviet Union, won in 1987. The American-born novelist Philip Roth has been frequently mentioned as a possible recipient.
The Nobel, one of the world’s most prestigious and financially generous awards, comes with a prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, or just over $900,000. The literature prize is given for a lifetime of writing rather than for a single work.
The prize announcement came hours after news of the death at age 90 of Dario Fo, the Italian playwright, director and performer whose satirical work was recognised by the 1997 prize.
Previous Nobel laureates in literature have included giants like Rudyard Kipling, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
In recent years, the prize has gone to a stylistically and geographically diverse group of writers, among them the Belarussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich in 2015, the French novelist Patrick Modiano in 2014, the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro in 2013, the Chinese novelist and short story writer Mo Yan in 2012, and the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer in 2011.
In the weeks before the announcement, speculation about potential winners swirled in the literary world and even in betting markets. Some familiar names were bandied about, including American novelist Don DeLillo, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, the Kenyan playwright Ngugi WA Thiong’o, and the Syrian poet known as Adonis. Other writers seen as having an outside shot at the prize included the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, the Spanish novelist Javier Marias and the South Korean poet Ko Un. Very few observers, including bookmakers, had given Dylan much of a shot.
When Alexievich won last year, it was a rare instance of a nonfiction writer being honoured by the Nobel committee for her artistic achievement. Alexievich, a journalist who has used oral history to examine painful moments in the history of the Soviet Union, including the Chernobyl disaster and the experience of Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, bases her books on years’ worth of interviews with hundreds of people.