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Literature, Popular Culture, and the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature

Monday 24 October 2016 at 8:24 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared IMAGES for October 20, 2016, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            When I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I took an English course entitled “Popular Culture as Literature.” This was back in the 1970’s, so the idea of considering any form of “popular culture,” such as comic strips and pulp detective novels, as literature was a rather revolutionary idea. I thought “literature’ had to be on the par with a “William Shakespeare” or a “Christopher Marlowe,” or at least, a “Charles Dickens.” It never occurred to me that all three of those named were actually writers of popular culture.

            Shakespeare and Marlowe wrote for the popular stage, with something for everybody, -- rustic clowns for the common people and glitzy pomp and spectacle for the aristocrats. Charles Dickens printed his novels, one chapter at a time, and hawked them on the streets of London, like one would sell newspapers. That, in essence, would have to be considered “popular culture.” But there’s good popular culture and there’s bad popular culture.

            So, this year, when it was announced that Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, I was not shocked, and hardly even surprised, as I would have been had he won before the 1970’s. Bob Dylan has done a lot of different types of music, but he is primarily remembered as a writer and singer of folk songs. Some of his famous songs were influenced by the Anti-War and the Civil Rights Movement – “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a Changing.” He was inspired by and sang with Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez.

            Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel prize in 1954, and Americans felt that he truly deserved it. However, some literary critics in England were not happy with this choice, because they believed Hemingway’s writing style was too “journalistic.” Newspaper writing, which is short and simple, was generally considered “popular culture.” Because they were short and simple, were they examples of “popular culture”? Not really. His sentences were short and simple, in that they were free of superfluous words; that’s called “terse,” and it’s considered a good thing by most wordsmiths.

            When I was much younger, I used to think that there was an august tribunal made up of the most erudite of the literati coming together and choosing the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and that they picked the person who used the most big words. Of course that was not the case. Choosing the winner must be incredibly difficult considering that he or she doesn’t have to be an English or American writer, but could be Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Norwegian, etc. The winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize was Mo Yan of China and the 1929 winner was Thomas Mann of Germany.

            American writer, John Steinbeck, won the Nobel in 1962, and American writer, William Faulkner, won it in 1949. It’s interesting that Faulkner has a very complicated writing style, consisting of long, elaborate sentences, sometimes so long you forget what the main thought is by the time you come to the end of them. In contrast, John Steinbeck has a much simpler writing style that is so poetic it seems, in places, like poetry rather than prose. Winning is not based on style, but more on profundity of thought. In all their simplicity, Hemingway’s novels are very profound. In a similar way, Bob Dylan’s short, simple lyrics have great depth of thought.

            When I taught English, I taught my students never to write in 24 words what you can say in 12, and don’t write 12 words if you can say it in 6. Profundity and verbosity may seem like synonyms, but they can actually be antonyms. John Ciardi once said that a good poem must say more than it explicitly states.

            Bob Dylan was born in Minnesota, and his real name was Robert Zimmerman. He officially changed his name to “Bob Dylan,” mainly because he was a great admirer of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. Thomas is famous for the poem, “do not go gentle into that good night” (no caps). Even though Bob Dylan wrote lyrics to songs rather than not-to-be-sung poetry, you can see in his writing style the influence of his much admired Dylan Thomas.

            Here’s the first verse to Bob

Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”: “How many roads must a man walk down/ Before you call him a man?/ How many seas must a white dove sail/ Before she sleeps in the sand?/ Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly/ Before they’re forever banned?/ The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind/ The answer is blowin’in the wind.” You can see from this that Dylan’s lyrics have a depth to them that most modern song lyrics don’t.

            I think you’ll agree that’s more profound than “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog.”


 Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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