A Nobel Feat: Bob Dylan’s ultimate prize subject of ASU class

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Leave it to Bob Dylan to be so pervasive that an Arizona State University English professor is planning a summer class on his receipt of the Nobel Prize for literature.

It’s not only because Elizabeth Horan is a Dylan fan, she insists. She has taught a class on the Nobel literature prize every fall semester for about two decades. This year it didn’t make the fall schedule.

Because Nobel winners are typically announced in October, students in those fall classes predict a winner in the literature category, explain and discuss their choices and then spend the latter weeks of the semester talking about the winner.

Without fail, Horan said, every semester at least one student predicts Dylan to win. Last year he was the choice of three students. But, obviously, no one was ever right.

“It was ironic that the one semester I skip the class, Dylan wins,” she says. 

Dylan’s aura transcends the classroom, Horan believes. “About half the class ends up hating Dylan.”

Mesa resident Todd Butler earned a degree in English literature from ASU in 2011. He took the Nobel class in 2009.

Butler says he found the class “really interesting,” but admits he was “not a student who chose Bob Dylan” as the winner. “I wouldn’t have thought that was an option,” Butler said. Instead he chose an Israeli author “who still hasn’t won.” 

Butler has no qualms with the academy’s choice of Dylan as the winner this year.

I think it’s great that Dylan won—recognizing a recognizable figure in America.” He’s chosen to view Dylan’s win as “a break in a difficult year in America” that allows people “to remember that there were some good things in America this year” and says it gives people a reason to celebrate.

He speculates that Dylan won because of the quality of his lyrics, his status as a cultural marker and the changes he’s led in the music industry.

Does Professor Horan have a theory about why Dylan won in 2016?

Maybe.

“There’s a growing body of work about Dylan by scholars,” Horan says, “And there have been some changes within the Nobel committee.” 

She describes Dylan as “a populist with clear roots in populism and racial issues.” 

Because this year’s literature winner was announced a week later than other Nobel prizes, Horan says she was tipped off that “there was a potential controversy.”

Then when the chairwoman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee made such a short announcement about Dylan’s award, her hunch was reinforced. Those announcements often involve about 15 minutes of talk by the chairman. Dylan’s was only three minutes.

Another of Horan’s former students, Jerome Clark, considers Dylan’s win important “because it challenges us to what we believe literature to be.”

Clark, who lives in Tempe, has a bachelor’s degree in American Indian studies from ASU, a master’s in English from Northern Arizona University and is now in the English Ph.D. program at ASU. He took the Nobel class in 2013. He appreciated the class discussions about “what function awards have in society, what their value is.” 

Reading the works of past Nobel winners, Clark noted that many of them make social commentary in their writings. 

He thinks the same of Dylan.

“He redefines and challenges what we perceive as literature,” Clark says. 

Professor Horan isn’t part of the crowd who has says a songwriter isn’t creating genuine literature.

“The clout of the Nobel is it attracts attention to the literary value” of the recipient’s work, Horan says. “It’s ridiculous to think only songwriters will win again.” 

Clark agrees with his professor. He says people who argue that Dylan isn’t a writer because he writes poetry and songs have “a narrow definition of what a writer is.”

Horan says defining any art is a difficult task.

“Art is for reaching people,” she says. “It appeals to our emotions, our better selves, our community. Song in particular does that.” 

According to Horan, the nomination for the Nobel in literature calls for “the most outstanding work in an idealistic vision.” Dylan’s writings fit that description well, she says. 

Clark says Dylan’s choice “begins to shift the idea of who can win.” He supports that shift in mindsets because he believes it will result in a win eventually going to a Native American writer. Many Native Americans share stories orally, not via traditional writing, Clark says, and aren’t considered writers by everyone.

The Dylan Nobel class is planned as an online course, running for 7 1/2 weeks this summer. Because it’s coming after the 2016 announcement and quite a bit before the 2017 winners are chosen, Horan will change the tenor of the class from past offerings. 

“Instead of saying who should win, I will have my students write about what realms” Dylan is in and why he won. “The class will look at the origins of his voice and his music.”

Students will discuss the scandal surrounding his Nobel prize, the process and his decision not to attend the awards ceremony. Those topics will be required for inclusion in the first paper they write.

The second paper that the students will write will be their theory of who will win the prize in 20 years. That encourages her students to “think from the triangulation of the United States, Sweden and the world,” Horan says. “Dylan won because he’s an international celebrity, an international figure.” 

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