Two landmark literary awards, given to Americans in recent weeks, reflect our ever-evolving sense of what makes for excellence in literature – and, in one case, what makes for literature at all.
That last point refers, of course, to the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. The move, rumored for several years, was bound to be controversial, and indeed within hours, the pushback had started; the Times quickly ran a dissenting piece, bluntly titled “Why Bob Dylan Shouldn’t Have Gotten a Nobel,” by novelist Anna North, who acknowledged Dylan as “a wonderful musician, a world-class songwriter and an enormously influential figure in American culture,” but argued that “by awarding the prize to him, the Nobel committee is choosing not to award it to a writer, and that is a disappointing choice.”
Of course, Dylan partisans rejoiced at the Nobel, viewing it not only as just recognition of Dylan’s luminous accomplishments, but as a refreshing change of pace for the award itself, a step toward making it less fusty and more capacious. But you can rest assured that many writers are grumbling about the Academy giving the award to a songwriter while such American (and Canadian) novelists as Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Margaret Atwood are available. One novelist friend of mine emailed me: “It seems reckless and downright stupid. Literature? His only novel, Tarantula, is nonsense. His memoir is Patti Smith-esque at best. So that leaves the lyrics. I think it’s a despicable choice.”
Millions of passionate Dylan devotees couldn’t disagree more vehemently – like my wife, lifelong St. Bob acolyte, who insists that those lyrics rise to a high level of poetry. She isn't alone in this opinion, either. No less exalted a literary authority than the acclaimed Oxford don and critic Christopher Ricks, whose usual literary beat is Keats, Milton and Eliot, has written a 500-page book -- Dylan: Visions of Sin -- arguing this point of view. That such a paragon of serious literature would give the imprimatur of his approval to Dylan surely must have helped pave the way for the Nobel with the Swedish Academy, which in announcing the prize likened Dylan’s lyrics to the poetry of Homer and Sappho.
I’m conflicted. I love Dylan’s music, but when I compare my appreciation of Blood on the Tracks with how I respond to, say, the best work of John Updike (my personal favorite among recent American candidates who failed to snag the Nobel), there’s a considerable apples and oranges factor, and a corresponding sense that the Nobel committee should perhaps stick with oranges. Christopher Ricks disagrees. Here, in an interview with the Times’ Charles McGrath, he discusses how Dylan’s songs work as poetry: “You love a song at first by applying a person you knew to that song. And then it very beautifully turns into the other, complementary thing, which is that you understand the person better by virtue of the song, and it’s a lovely sort of virtuous circle. The extraordinary applicability of the songs does seem to me to be part of their greatness. I somehow say, ‘How did Dylan know this about me?’”
That’s a pretty persuasive argument, and not least because it poses the same question – how does he know this about me? -- that Yale scholar Harold Bloom asks rhetorically about Shakespeare, highlighting the great artist’s mysterious and even godlike ability to know us humans from the soul out.
Dylan, meanwhile, enigmatic as always, has given the Nobel his Greta-Garbo treatment, issuing no statement whatsoever -- no thank you, no hint of whether he might deign to attend the award ceremony – and leaving us to hash out whether this is a simple breach of good manners, or something more significant, as critic Adam Kirsch argued in a Times op-ed titled “The Meaning of Bob Dylan’s Silence.” Kirsch construes Dylan’s prize, following a quarter-century of the Swedish Academy ignoring American writers, as a diss of American writers (“The all-but-explicit message was that American literature, as traditionally defined, was simply not good enough.”) He notes that the chair of the academy some years back accused American writers of provincialism, judging them “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture... too isolated, too insular,” and asserting that because “they don’t translate enough,” they consequently “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” Kirsch savors Dylan’s silence, seeing it both as an unintentional counter-diss and as a highly intentional exercise of the authenticity and rejection of mere fame that made Dylan such a compelling figure in the first place. (Dylan finally spoke up about the Nobel two days ago, calling it “amazing;” asked if he planned to attend the ceremony, he said, “Absolutely, if at all possible.”)
Regarding the second American awardee, I don’t know whether Paul Beatty engages in the big dialogue of literature, but I do know that he made literary history by becoming the first American to win the Man Booker Prize, an award previously limited to writers from the U.K. and the Commonwealth countries. Unlike the Nobel, which honors an entire career, the Booker is awarded for a single work, which in Beatty’s case is his novel, The Sellout, a rowdy, take-no-prisoners tragicomedy about race in America.
The unnamed narrator of The Sellout is a pothead African-American resident of the L.A. suburb of Dickens, CA, a town so beaten down, it has been taken off the map. Both bookish and outrageous, the narrator is the son of a renegade sociologist father killed by the police during a traffic stop. Like father, like son: our hero undertakes eccentric missions of his own, seeking to re-impose segregation in a neighborhood school and at one point acquiring a willing slave, an elderly man (and long-ago child actor on “The Little Rascals”) named Hominy Jenkins -- all in order to put Dickens back on the map, literally and figuratively, and ultimately win himself an audience at the Supreme Court.
Got all that? In a review, the excellent Times critic Dwight Garner described Beatty’s novel as akin to “Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle wrapped in a satirical yet surprisingly delicate literary and historical sensibility.” And what a strange, funny, and riotous novel it is. Just as the narrator defies categories -- black urban farmer, horseback rider, and surfer – so too is Beatty equally uncategorizable, writing in a riffing, standup-comedy style and wantonly conflating dichotomies of white/black; highbrow/lowbrow; seminar/street. This is writing that outdoes itself with a kind of rambling hyperbolic one-upsmanship. Riffing about Abraham Lincoln, Beatty will shift into sports jargon: “The Great Emancipator, you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.” The next sentence may have him sounding like Woody Allen (“Most kids got bedtime stories and fairy tales; I had to fall asleep to readings from chapters with titles like ‘The Utility of Models of the Environments of Systems for Practitioners.’”) His jazzy prose is incorrigibly profane, spilling over everywhere with the n-word and other things not printable here, and rife with multidirectional ironies and sarcasm. The novel’s opening scene, for instance, has the nameless narrator appearing before the Supreme Court; rendering it, Beatty does a riff on Clarence Thomas and his celebrated silence... and has him bursting out profanely.
The Sellout exudes both laughter and anger. There’s a loving but satirical portrait of the narrator’s eggheaded father and the devoutly leftwing upbringing he visited upon the son (“His gangly, absentminded black lab rat, I was homeschooled in strict accordance with Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. I wasn’t fed; I was presented with appetitive stimuli. I wasn’t punished, but broken of my unconditioned reflexes.”) The father presides over a group of Donut Store intellectuals, and there’s a large dollop of farce added to that group’s portrayal; but when the father is shot and killed by a cop, and the son/narrator carries his body away on a horse, it breaks your heart.
Beatty’s novel seems pitch perfect for the current American moment -- a novel of morbid humor, showing an instinct for civil disobedience vis-à-vis all proprieties, including literary, and flashing with intermittent anger. The Sellout deploys absurdity in the pursuit of a vision of racial justice, its page-long runaway sentences ruefully depicting the abject status of black Americans – as when the city of Dickens, in its attempt to find a sister city, is rejected by Kinshasa and even Chernobyl. Beatty wrings laughter from pain, and vice versa. “Prick the satire in The Sellout,” Dwight Garner notes, “and real blood emerges.”