Bob Dylan won this year’s Nobel Prize, ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ Which basically tells you everything you need to know about the 21st century. Where the 20th century gave us the lilting romanticism of Yeats, the haunting modernity of Eliot, and the wintry stoicism of Bunin, we answered with… Dylan: a whinging, narcissistic hippie who sounds always to be in the throes of a minor stroke. He’s the voice of a generation, yes – an eminently loathsome generation responsible for all our contemporary ills, from the housing bubble to mass immigration. The only greater farce committed by the Nobel Committee was awarding its Peace Prize to Barack Obama in 2009 for outstanding achievement in the field of blackness. This is a consistent blind spot for the Committee, since Bob’s as much a poet as Barry is black. (About half at best.) Or, to use Norman Mailer’s line, ‘If Dylan’s a poet, I’m a basketball player.’ Indeed, it seems we’ve now reached the literati’s culminating effort in its long campaign to ‘deconstruct outdated conceptions of literature’. Drop by a university course in English lit and behold the jarring references to photographs and films as ‘texts’. (Très avante-garde!) Why not music? Well, besides the obvious.
Granted, Dylan’s not the strangest laureate in literature to date. Three French philosophers were given the distinction last century: Bergson in 1927, Camus in 1957, and Sartre in 1964. Camus’s blurb makes only passing reference to the fact that he actually wrote anything, his noteworthy novels basically numbering two: The Stranger and The Plague. Picture Eeyore slouching around Paris in a leather jacket and you’ve got The Stranger; substitute Paris for Algeria, and the leather jacket for a lab coat, and you’ve got The Plague. But with Bergson and Sartre, there was no literary pretence at all. The Committee applauded the former for his ‘rich and vitalizing ideas’. The latter: ‘for his work, which rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth.’ Sartre’s blurb is amusing, considering he actually wrote a few half-decent novels. But the Committee didn’t even pay them lip service, as if to ensure future generations that the author of Nausea doesn’t belong in the same class as those of The Grapes of Wrath and Siddhartha.
But Dylan’s award should leave a bitter taste in the mouths of Australians in particular. Because, if unwittingly, he’s stolen the award from two outstanding Aussie writers who are long overdue for Nobels of their own. And, as they can’t be awarded posthumously, their time is rapidly running out.
The first is Clive James. Mr James is arguably the greatest living critic and essayist working in our mother tongue. He’s also, unlike Dylan, really not a bad poet. His latest book, Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook, was written while he dies of leukemia. This is the man who not only invented television criticism, but elevated it to an art form. Very few writers (and I don’t think any Nobel laureates) both invented and mastered a new genre of writing. Yet even if it isn’t his greatest work, the Nobel Committee’s been known to pin their medals on positively dreadful books, in order to celebrate an ageing author before his time expires. Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel was ostensibly awarded for the worst bit of rubbish he ever produced, The Old Man and the Sea (aka Eeyore on a Boat). Why not Clive? But it’s now, sadly, doubtful he’ll live to see another award doled out. This was one of the few occasions where we can count down the hours of a great author’s life, and the Committee chose to pass him over for Tommy Chong in a Lowes fedora.
Then, of course, there’s Les Murray, aged beyond his already considerable seventy-seven years by a lifetime of health complications. Les has been in the running for the Nobel since before I was born. He’s the only living Australian with an international reputation for his poetry. In fact, aside from Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, he might be the only internationally-renowned Aussie poet period. That’s no reflection on Australian poetry, of course. It just takes a great deal to break through the country’s reputation as an untamed waste, populated sparsely by Aboriginal shaman and crocodile wranglers invariably named Bruce. The stereotype of Australia qua cultural backwater is untrue but pervasive, and has compelled virtually all of her greatest authors to emigrate to Britain or the United States. (Patrick White, Australia’s only Nobel laureate in literature, spent time in both countries.) Others simply become disheartened and abandon their craft. Yet isn’t this all the more reason to honour Les? Imagine what a boon it would be to the country’s young writers if our greatest-ever poet received the world’s highest literary honor… and actually deserved it. Anyway, given how many great bush bards have been smugly ignored by the wider world, I think we’re long overdue for a little recognition.
Alternatively, we could just give Clive and Les a Grammy each. That’d be fine, right? After all, if music is literature, then literature must be music. I’m sure all these teenaged wastrels and soccer moms cheering on Dylan would understand if Justin Bieber lost Best Album to Play All, or if Rhianna lost Best Single to ‘The Solstice Vote’. They’d understand how fluid genres and creative media are. After all, there’s no reason a ‘text’ can’t be considered music just because it isn’t, right? I mean, like, come on guys – it’s 2016!
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