He does deserve the many Grammys he has received, including a lifetime achievement award, which he won in 1991. He unquestionably belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 1988 along with the Supremes, the Beatles and the Beach Boys. He is a wonderful musician, a world-class songwriter and an enormously influential figure in American culture.
Yes, Mr. Dylan is a brilliant lyricist. Yes, he has written a book of prose poetry and an autobiography. Yes, it is possible to analyze his lyrics as poetry. But Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer.
As reading declines around the world, literary prizes are more important than ever. A big prize means a jump in sales and readership even for a well-known writer. But more than that, awarding the Nobel to a novelist or a poet is a way of affirming that fiction and poetry still matter, that they are crucial human endeavors worthy of international recognition.
Popular music is such an endeavor too, but, for the most part, it already receives the recognition it deserves. And apart from a few spoken-word awards, no one would expect the highest honors in music to go to a writer — we won’t be seeing Zadie Smith or Mary Gaitskill in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
They could have chosen a writer who has made significant innovations in the form, like Jennifer Egan, Teju Cole or Anne Carson. They could have selected a writer from the developing world, which remains woefully underrepresented among Nobel laureates. They could have picked a writer who has built an audience primarily online, like Warsan Shire, who became the first Young Poet Laureate of London in 2014.
Instead, the committee gave the prize to a man who is internationally famous in another field, one with plenty of honors of its own. Bob Dylan does not need a Nobel Prize in Literature, but literature needs a Nobel Prize. This year, it won’t get one.