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Beef Of The Week #359: Bob Dylan v Literature

By | Published on Friday 16 June 2017

Bob Dylan

I had mixed feelings when Bob Dylan finally turned in his Nobel Prize lecture just days before the deadline earlier this month. On the one hand, it was a nice way to round off the story. On the other, I was a little sad that a story I had been enjoying for months had ended in a less than dramatic manner. Of course, I should have had faith that there would be more still to come.

As you may remember, in his long delayed speech, Dylan pondered a question asked by many when he had been named winner of last year’s Nobel Prize In Literature, wondering if song lyrics can really be thought of as literature. In his pondering of this point, he examined three genuine works of literature that had been an influence on him: ‘Moby Dick’, ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ and ‘The Odyssey’.

The day after the speech was published, author Ben Greenman wrote a blog post noting that a quote attributed to ‘Moby Dick’ by Dylan in his speech doesn’t actually feature in the book. He went back and read the book just to make sure. Nope, not there.

“It appears, from all available evidence, that Dylan invented the quote and inserted it into his reading of ‘Moby Dick'”, wrote Greenman. “Was it on purpose? Was it the result of a faulty memory? Was it an egg, left in the lawn to be discovered in case it’s Eastertime too? Answering these questions would be drilling into the American Sphinx, and beside the point anyway. As it stands, it’s very much in the spirit of his entire enterprise: to take various American masterworks and absorb and transform them. The mystery of it makes a wonderful lecture even more wonderful”.

While Greenman didn’t feel this was something worth investigating further, the anomaly also intrigued another author, Andrea Pitzer, who felt differently. She began an investigation that uncovered something truly perplexing. It appeared that Dylan hadn’t invented the quote at all. Rather, he’d cut and pasted it from a high school study guide about ‘Moby Dick’ on a website called SparkNotes and misattributed it to the book itself.

“In Dylan’s recounting, a ‘Quaker pacifist priest’ tells Flask, the third mate, ‘Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness'”, she wrote in an article for Slate. “No such line appears anywhere in Herman Melville’s novel. However, SparkNotes’ character list describes the preacher using similar phrasing, as ‘someone whose trials have led him toward God rather than bitterness'”.

So, hey, that’s weird. But then, Pitzer began to further examine the speech and study guide side by side, discovering that more than a quarter of Dylan’s section on ‘Moby Dick’ appeared to have been lifted, though slightly rewritten, from SparkNotes.

Suddenly this story has taken a new, joyous turn. Perhaps this was indeed, as Greenman suggested, an Easter egg left out in the open to be found later. Or maybe Dylan never expected to be found out. Either way, the irony of a prestigious literary prize being given to a controversial winner, who then, in order to receive almost a million dollars in prize money, submitted a speech that they seemingly cribbed from a website aimed at teenagers is too good.

Actually, Pitzer and others have noted that this is entirely in keeping with Dylan’s manner of working. In the folk tradition, he has always taken the work of others and adapted it into his own style. His songs, paintings, even his autobiography contain content pulled from generally unattributed sources.

“Bob is not authentic at all”, Joni Mitchell said of Dylan in an interview with The LA Times in 2010. “He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I”.

Three years later, having taken a lot of flak for those comments, Mitchell clarified in an interview with CBC: “I like a lot of Bob’s songs, though musically he’s not very gifted. He’s borrowed his voice from old hillbillies. He’s got a lot of borrowed things. He’s not a great guitar player. He’s invented a character to deliver his songs. Sometimes I wish that I could have that character – because you can do things with that character. It’s a mask of sorts”.

At the end of his speech, Dylan seemed to conclude, in answer to his original question, that songs were not literature. “Our songs are alive in the land of the living”, he said. “But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read”.

If the apparent SparkNotes lifting is now the conclusion of the story of Dylan’s Nobel Prize win – he has certainly offered no comment upon it as yet – then it brings a more suitable air of mystery to its end. Maybe Dylan was just acting as Dylan does, writing a speech as he would write anything. Or perhaps the construction of the speech itself was an examination of what counts as literature and what doesn’t. Can one artform be like another? Let’s give him another Nobel Prize just to be on the safe side.