Essential Question

What are the arguments for and against Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature?

Overview

Despite his personal stance as a pacifist, Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel amassed a fortune inventing and selling explosives to European militaries throughout the 19th century. Toward the end of his life, however, Nobel experienced a Dickensian awakening. Mistaking his brother’s death for his, a newspaper published an obituary proclaiming, “the merchant of death is dead.” Shaken by the characterization, Nobel began considering how he might reshape his legacy. He altered his will, putting the vast majority of his wealth into a trust that would fund five annually awarded “Nobel Prizes” for Science, Medicine, Chemistry, Literature, and “International Fraternity,” which has become known as “Peace.” The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, just over four years after Nobel’s death.

Today, the Nobel Prizes are considered by many the ultimate recognition of excellence, as well as a form of economic support that allows a pioneer in a field to continue pursuing advancement, regardless of potential monetary gain. Thus, when the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to celebrated musician and lyricist Bob Dylan, debates about the decision raged around the world. People asked: Does songwriting count as literature? Does Dylan’s writing maintain its quality when not performed with music? Will Dylan’s Nobel Award create more awareness for literature, or does it block the voices of less famous writers? Could the monetary award have gone to someone more in need of it than a world-famous Rock star? Even Dylan seemed surprised at the announcement, stating in his acceptance speech that the award got him “to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature.”  

Many poets and novelists lamented that an award for literature was going to someone who has already been extensively honored for his music. Novelist Jodi Picoult, for example, sarcastically tweeted, “I’m happy for Bob Dylan. But does this mean I can win a Grammy?” Other writers, like Salman Rushdie, celebrated Dylan’s achievement, positioning him in a long line of influential bards going back to Homer. Music critics were similarly split on the decision. For Dylan admirers, the award was overdue: “What took them so long?” asked New York Times critic Jon Pareles. Others were less enthused, arguing that a figure as universally beloved as Dylan was the safe choice, and more of a reflection of the makeup of the Swedish Academy who chooses winners than anything else. “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature says nothing about the quality of Dylan’s work,” critic Everett True wrote, “and everything about the age, ethnicity and gender of the Nobel Prize for Literature judges.”  

Perhaps the most severe criticism of Dylan’s win concerned his originality. In a tweet, novelist Hari Kunzru wrote, “does this mean we get to have a serious conversation about Dylan as appropriator and boundaries between that and plagiarism?” Kunzru’s critique of Dylan has a long history: readers have found multiple instances of plagiarism in his memoir Chronicles: Volume One, as well as in his albums Modern Times and (the appropriately titled) Love and Theft. Dylan’s Nobel acceptance speech even plagiarized text from “Sparknotes,” a study guide website.

Yet, what some call plagiarism, Dylan and many others refer to as “borrowing,” or “inspiration.” Many would argue such practices are an essential part of an American songwriting tradition that generously borrows from the cultural melting pot that is the United States. As Dylan once expressed, American folk songs “gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.”

The Swedish Academy awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” In this lesson, students consider the role Dylan has played in both literature and the American song tradition, and debate whether his work indeed constitutes “new poetic expressions” worthy of the prestigious award.

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Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The history and motivation behind the Nobel Prize for Literature
    • The written work of Bob Dylan
    • The work of poets Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Rimbaud
    • How poetry, the Bible, and American Blues influenced Dylan’s writing
    • The debate surrounding Dylan’s award of the Nobel Prize in Literature
    • The complex issue of artistic inspiration versus plagiarism
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to define the ways songwriting might and might not be considered literature through text analysis and a structured academic controversy.

Activities

Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • Have you ever heard of the Nobel Prizes?
    • Who do you think gets Nobel Prizes? Why do you think they are awarded?
  2. Show students Image 1, Will of Nobel Prize Founder Alfred Nobel. Have students read the text out loud. Reread the red text, then ask:
    • How might you define “literature”? (Note to teacher: while there are many definitions, “written work” is among the broadest.)
    • What criteria did Nobel establish to judge literature? Would you say the criteria is specific?
    • What do you think Nobel might have meant by an “outstanding work in an ideal direction”? How might a work embody this idea? What work might you choose?
    • Do you think song lyrics count as literature? Why or why not?

Procedure:

  1. Show students Image 2, Press Release for the 2016 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ask students:
    • What do you think the committee might mean by the “great American song tradition”?
    • What kinds of “new poetic traditions” do you think Bob Dylan might have introduced?
  2. Show students Clip 1, “Bob Dylan and the Transition to FM Radio” from the PBS Soundbreaking series, then ask:
    • In what ways does the clip suggest that Bob Dylan might have created “new poetic traditions within the great American song tradition”? (Encourage students to recognize that “Like A Rolling Stone” was more than twice as long as the average single at the time, and that the lyric content emboldened other artists to sing more meaningful lyrics.)
    • Do you think Dylan’s role in influencing songwriting makes him eligible for an award in literature? Why or why not? (Encourage students to consider whether song lyrics can be categorized as literature).
  3. Tell students they will now be analyzing Dylan’s writing in comparison to other texts. Split students into four groups, and give each group 1 page from Handout 1 – Dylan’s Literary Inspirationsso that every group has a different document. Additionally, give each group Handout 2 – Comparing Texts. Have students read the handouts as a group, and then compare lyrics written by Dylan with those written by others that have inspired him, using Handout 2 as a guide.
  4. Ask student groups to present their analysis to the class. Before or after each group presentation, play the song clips that correspond to each handout:
  5. Ask students:
    • Based on these comparisons, do you feel Dylan has contributed to literature, or just translated pre-existing literature into song form?
  6. Tell the four student groups that they will now participate in a Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) activity. Give each group one copy of Handout 3 – Love or Theft? A Structured Academic Controversy, as well as Document Set 1 – Arguments for Dylan’s Nobel Prize and Document Set 2 – Arguments against Dylan’s Nobel Prize. Tell students to proceed according to the instructions provided on Handout 3.
  7. After the activity, ask groups to share their discussions with the rest of the class. (If the teacher wishes, allow students to carry out the debate as an entire class).

Summary Activity:

  1. Pass out Handout 4 – Bob Dylan’s Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature (Excerpt), and read aloud as a class. Ask students:
    • How does Dylan seem to respond to winning the award?
    • Who  does Dylan cite as influences? How does he say they inspired him?
    • Where does Dylan seem to position himself as an artist?
  2. Ask students, and debate as a class:
    • Having gone through the activities today, do you feel Bob Dylan has plagiarized from other written traditions, or has create his own unique work? Is that work deserving of a prize in literature?

Extension Activity:

  1. Writing Prompt: If you were to choose a singer-songwriter or rapper to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, who would it be? Cite and analyze the artist’s lyrics to defend your decision.

Standards

Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listing.

Language 5: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in a word meaning.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Comprehension & Collaboration 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Presentation of Knowledge 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

Research to Build and Present Knowledge 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding  of the subject under investigation.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Place, and Environments

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.