Why Bob Dylan Deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature

My father and I have sung lullabies since before I can remember. We started our tradition when I was infant: he would sing; I would cry. Sometimes, I’d quiet down and listen. As I grew older, I began singing with him. Our lullabies feel as imprinted upon me as nails on my fingers. They remind me of home, like the scent of fresh challah or the first bite into my dad’s shortbread cookies.

Five of those lullabies are Bob Dylan songs. They soundtracked my childhood, and as the years progressed, the full Dylan canon began scoring my life. My parents are chiefly responsible for my musical tastes, and my dad in particular encouraged my appreciation of Dylan. He included Dylan in the same category as only a select few singer-songwriters — Tom Waits, John Prine, Joni Mitchell — whom he considered geniuses for their writing as much as for their music. Yet as wonderful as those other artists are, Dylan reigned, and reigns, above them. As Dylan himself told the Rolling Stones, as recorded in Christopher Sanford’s biography, Keith Richards: Satisfaction: “I could’ve written Satisfaction, but no way you fuckers could’ve written Tambourine Man.”

That’s basically right, but with an asterisk. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were musical geniuses. Their discography includes some of the best instrumental composing, from “Satisfaction” to “Gimme Shelter,” in all of English music. In no world, however — in no iteration of themselves — could Jagger or Richards have written the lyrics to “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Or “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or “115th Dream,” or “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” No one besides Bob Dylan could. Dylan is, of course, an excellent musician, and perhaps indeed could have penned the chords to “Satisfaction.” But Dylan’s extraordinary, rather than merely wonderful, talent has always been his writing. It is in the literary sphere that Dylan has thrived and soared. It is with his words, not his beats or riffs, that Dylan has articulated the angsts, joys, rages and fears of an entire generation, and many people after that.

Dylan is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. That includes all novelists, all playwrights and poets. So, too, is Dylan one of the most unusual. He is a poet, yes: one glance at the lyrics to “Mr. Tambourine Man” conveys that. But, more specifically, he is a bard. Today, our use of “bard” usually refers to a famous poet or minstrel — hence William Shakespeare being called “the Bard of Avon.” However, a true bard, in the original sense, is a professional story teller: one who, through verse and music, orally tells his or her tales. This sense of the bardic tradition has declined, but the fact we still read “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” shows that it remains central and influential to modern literature. Dylan, today, carries the mantel that almost 3,000 years ago Homer bore.

For that reason, Dylan does not just fit squarely within the bounds of literature, albeit at its outskirts. He is also one of the most innovative and important literary figures today. Dylan, and few others, keeps alive the ancient intersection of song and story that has proved so powerful. What’s more, he has integrated the bardic tradition into popular culture, earning it modern fans around the world.

Dozens of writers besides Dylan would deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature: Joyce Carol Oates, Salman Rushdie, Joan Didion, Philip Roth and Haruki Murakami come to mind. Less widely recognized writers, from underdeveloped countries, would deserve the award as well. That’s the case every year. Dylan, in particular, doesn’t need the recognition or money a Nobel Prize brings. However, the bardic tradition does need a Nobel Prize — and it has just won its first in the award’s 115-year history. Moreover, Dylan himself deserves his Nobel Prize, for returning the bardic tradition to prominence in modern consciousness, for writing some of the greatest poems and lyrics of the 20th century, for widening the bounds of literature to include him and the ancient art he represents.

One day, I will sing lullabies to my children, and I will include Bob Dylan’s songs among them. In that way, when my children are too young to read, I will introduce them to the world of stories.


In ‘The Hammer of Thor,’ Rick Riordan Throws Convention Out the Window

***SPOILERS for Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan, which you should all read, suggested age range be damned.***

When I read the first book in Rick Riordan’s series about Norse gods in the modern world last year, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer, I noticed something unusual: the main character lacked a love interest. Samirah al-Abbas, the young Muslim woman Riordan created to fill the Strong Female Lead role, was engaged to and in love another character. Magnus Chase, the protagonist of the new series, had no romantic options in sight.

So I knew, when I picked up Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor last week, that Riordan would introduce a new character to serve as Chase’s love interest. I just didn’t expect her to be a gender-fluid, transgender person.

Alex Fierro was assigned male at birth, but realized when she was young that she identified as both male and female. Because of her gender fluidity, her parents kicked her out, making her homeless as a mere teenager. She asks her companions to call her “she” or “he” based on which gender she identifies with more on a given day, rather than using the pronoun “they.” (She usually feels more female, hence my use of the feminine pronoun in this piece.)

Through Magnus’ well-meaning but ignorant gaze, the reader learns about gender fluidity, being transgender, the perils of transphobia, and the history of gender fluid and transgender individuals — according to Norse mythology, they’ve existed as long as Norse gods have. (Certainly longer, too.) Yet Riordan also emphasizes that Alex’s story is not every transgender or gender fluid person’s tale. She is one of many: being the only gender fluid or transgender person Magnus knows does not make her a mascot.

It would’ve been enough for Rick Riordan, one of the most popular children’s authors in the world today, to write a gender fluid and/or transgender main character. That inclusion, by itself, would have continued his intentional representation of diverse heroes. But he went a step further: Alex isn’t just a main character, she is a love interest, too.

In this book, she’s only subtly so. She’s got a lot of baggage; so does Magnus. Not to mention the fact they’re busy trying to save the world — y’know, normal teen stuff. They’ve also just met. But from the outset, the reader feels a connection between Magnus and Alex. Magnus finds her beautiful as a woman; he finds Alex handsome as a man. He is fascinated by her, he cares about her, and even though this book is meant for readers as young as 11, he is attracted to her.

Even in literature and media meant for adults, I have seen few portrayals of gender fluid or transgender people as attractive. They may be good, brave people, admirable and strong; but flat-out attractive? That one’s rare. Yet Rick Riordan, in a children’s book, broke that barrier. And he did so in a book that, today, hit Number 1 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List.

It’s almost impossible to quantify how much books impact people’s worldview, even children’s. (The Bestseller List highlighting The Hammer of Thor hasn’t even come out yet; Riordan just announced it on his Twitter.) But to give you an idea: the first book in Riordan’s Norse series, The Sword of Summer, had an initial print of 2.5 million copies. Many prints followed, meaning millions more children read that book. (And adults like me.) Since we can assume most of The Sword of Summer’s readers will get The Hammer of Thor as well, that means millions of children will meet Alex Fierro. Millions of children will be introduced to a gender fluid, transgender person for the first time. Millions of children will see a gender fluid, transgender person who is sympathetic, attractive, brave, smart, self-possessed, and wonderfully human.

That is revolutionary. That representation — to embolden gender fluid and transgender young people, to educate other children as allies — can, literally, change the world.

So you could say I got a nice surprise when I started reading The Hammer of Thor. By creating Alex Fierro, Rick Riordan threw the conventions of literary love interests out the window. And we’re all better off for it.