Philip Whiteley's Blog

October 14, 2016

Yesterday was a good day

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 8:36 am

Yesterday was a good day. I had some paid work. There were two new subscribers to my author book club (thanks Paul and Rachel! – before long I may not know the entire database by name…) And it was announced that the bard of Minnesota, Bob Dylan, referenced as one of my most influential writers in Close of Play and on my website, had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He will pick up the gong on my birthday, 10th December.

There have been some dismissive comments about a mere songwriter receiving literature’s most prestigious prize. I understand that view, and it would be of concern if there were to be a more general cheapening of literary awards, handed out to rock and pop stars. But Dylan is a one-off; a genuine poet, and one with a profound influence not only on society, but on writers – not just semi-professional novelists like myself, but also the former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. So I thought I’d take the time to compose a blog on why many of us who earn our living by the pen owe a debt to Dylan, and why he’s a much greater writer than most novelists.

It’s not just the poetry – Andrew Motion has drawn attention to the beautiful imagery in Visions of Johanna, the ‘ghost of ‘lectricity’, the way in which ‘near’ rhymes with ‘mirror’ – there is great storytelling. In Lily Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts, the scene-description is compelling. There is line about the drilling in the wall that keeps up ‘but no one seems to pay it any mind’. Every author will think, if they’re honest, ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ – the concise portrayal of a momentous event building, with an entire population missing the signs.

In the 1960s, it was Dylan himself who drew attention to what was going on in government, corporations and society; the deadly precision of lines such as ‘The executioner’s face is always well hidden’, or the human gods who ‘make everything from toy guns that spark, to flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark’.

This originality of perspective is something almost completely absent from modern literature; the possibility that we can free ourselves from limiting beliefs, from dominant narratives, has slowly, sadly been disappearing from the artistic world (unless someone can direct me to some fresh voices).

We can get terribly solemn and po-faced about literature, which is probably why novel-writing is at a low ebb. There’s to be no humour, no life experiences, a safe sticking to genre and disinclination for the original view. There’s a deadening over-emphasis on meticulous plot and research (see my recent blog).

Listen to Blood on the Tracks. How many modern novels evoke such passion, or contain such poetry and such depth? Or lines like ‘I can’t even touch the books you’ve read’? There are some: The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch; Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernières; but not many written in the past ten years.

By all means criticize the award, but do so on an understanding of the work, not just from overhearing Tambourine Man on the radio. A dismissive comment by someone who hasn’t taken the time to listen to and appreciate such astonishing works as It’s Alright Ma, Hard Rain, Visions of Johanna, Desolation Row, Lily Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts, Idiot Wind, Pay in Blood and many others is rather lazy.

Instead of asking: ‘Why should a songwriter win the Nobel?’, those of us who are authors should turn the spotlight back on ourselves: Can we equal Dylan’s finest work for its originality of phrase, originality of perspective, concise description of scene, storytelling power, its poetry and depth of feeling? If not, get back to class and stop whingeing.



  1. Eloquently said, and I wholeheartedly agree. He very much deserves this coveted prize and am happy it coincides with your birthday! Cheers!

    Comment by Tess Rosa Ruiz — October 14, 2016 @ 4:57 pm | Reply

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