What Is Literature In The Ghanaian And The Swedish Context? Francis Kwarteng Writes

Ghanaian Writers, Musicians & The Swedish Academy’s Surprise Definition of Literature

AFP/File / Frank Perry Musicians of the "Orchestre Lamoureux" perform Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" in 2013 in Nantes
AFP/File / Frank Perry Musicians of the "Orchestre Lamoureux" perform Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" in 2013 in Nantes

“By the time he was 23, Bob’s voice, with its weight, its unique, gravelly power was redefining not just what music sounded like, but the message it carried and how it made people feel. Today, everybody from Bruce Springsteen to U2 owes Bob a debt of gratitude” (Barack Obama).

“Bob Dylan is a genius, and for his genius, he’s been rewarded in every way; with fame, money, acclaim. He deserves all of it, but he doesn’t deserve the Nobel…The objection here hinges in the definition of the word ‘literature.’ You wouldn’t give the literary prize to an economist or a political saint. You shouldn’t give it to Bob Dylan (Stephen Metcalf).


The Swedish Academy, which is responsible for choosing/awarding Nobel Laureates in Literature, this year, 2016, has nominated Bob Dylan, an American singer, writer, songwriter and musician whose music genres run from folk, rock, gospel, and blues to country, for the prestigious award with the following citation for his:

“Having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Already the world of literature is abuzz with a mixture of confusion, excitement, and utter shock.

The obvious question then becomes:

Why did the Swedish Academy ignore such great writers from Leo Tolstoy, Chinua Achebe, Arthur Miller, perennial nominee Nuruddin Farah, Mark Twain, Jorge L. Borges, Robert Frost, Henry James, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Primo Levi, Philip Roth, George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov, Wystan H. Auden, and Virginia Woolf to John Updike?

This question is sometimes difficult to answer as information on possible answers is shrouded in mystery in accordance with regulations set forth in motion by the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

This information is, however, declassified fifty years following the prestigious prize being awarded to a selected nominee.


Meanwhile, others have speculated that the Swedish Academy is too Eurocentric when it never considered Chinua Achebe for the Prize.

But this speculation flies in the face of the Prize being given to Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka, and Derek Walcott.

We do know for a fact that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. may have played some role in Soyinka’s nomination (a high-profile American academic who is a colleague of both Gates and Soyinka confided in us).

Significantly, Soyinka has admitted in an interview that his being awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature may explain some of the tensions between him and Achebe.

Finally, Nellie Yvonne McKay’s text “Critical Essays on Toni Morrison” brought the work of Toni Morrison to the attention of the Swedish Academy.

It was actually the Jamaican-American woman of letters who was first offered the position Gates occupies now at Harvard University, a position she turned down and instead asked that it be given to Gates. Gates would later assemble a world-class faculty including Wole Soyinka, he and Appiah’s professor and academic advisor at Cambridge University, Kwame Anthony Appiah, the brilliant Ghanaian writer, historian and editor Emmanuel Acheampong, Cornel West among others.

Acheampong played an instrumental role in creating the Department of African/African-American Studies. The six-volume “Dictionary of African Biography” is edited by him and Gates. Gates co-authored “The Anthology of African American Literature” and “The Future of the Race” with Nellie and West respectively, and with Appiah edited “The Dictionary of Global Culture” and the first edition of “Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience” (see Molefi Kete Asante’s “Microsoft Encarta Africana Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Anthony Appiah” for his critique of this latter volume at www.asante.net).

And, last but not least, it was Soyinka who advised Gates to read literature if he wanted to impact an impact in race relations. His important work “The Signifying Monkey” would revolve around Soyinka’s interpretation of Yoruba culture, cosmology-cosmogony, art, philosophy, history among other useful topics.

Lastly, Gates then built the department around the progressive ideals and philosophy of America’s pre-eminent urban sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, a literary giant whose intellectual, moral and social philosophy Appiah tried to deconstruct in his controversial work, “In My Father’s House” (Read: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Hutchins Center). In this book Appiah was also highly critical of Soyinka, his mentor! Also in the late 1990s, for instance, Gates campaigned/lobbied for Du Bois to be named Time Magazine’s Man of the Century!


Essentially, Dylan was not the first musician to be nominated for the prestigious prize. The first was Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali musician, poet, painter, writer, film composer, and visual artist. The Swedish Academy awarded him the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature (citation):

“Because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.”

Then also, Alex Lubet, Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Music and Adjunct Professor of American Studies, University of Minnesota, writes of Tagore:

“The Nobel website states that Tagore, though he wrote in many genres, was principally a poet who published more than 50 volumes of verse, as well as plays, short stories, and novels. Tagore’s music isn’t mentioned until the last sentence, which says that the artist ‘also left… songs for which he wrote the music himself,’ as if this much-loved body of work was no more than an afterthought.

“But with over 2,000 songs to his name, Tagore’s output of music alone is extremely impressive. Many continue to be used in films, while three of his songs were chosen as national anthems by India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, an unparalleled achievement.

“Today, Tagore’s significance as a songwriter is undisputed.”

But Tagore was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, not for the kind of recognition the Swedish Academy has extended Dylan, although Prof. Lubet draws some striking parallels between the careers of both men.

That said, Prof. Lubet also cites an unsubstantiated rumor that claims Dylan was “first nominated in 1996” for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

This implies that the Swedish Academy may have been wrestling with the idea of awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Dylan.

However, we cannot make much of this speculation without the benefit of verifiable supporting evidence.

It is nevertheless interesting to see how some experts are already drawing some parallels between
Dylan’s musical language and the language of Homer’s epic poetry/poetic narrative (see his “Odyssey” and “Iliad”).

To make the spice up the controversy, others have also gone as far saying the Greek lyric poet Sappho, one of the so-called Nine (Melic) Poets would have endorsed the Swedish Academy for awarding Dylan the prestigious prize were she alive today.

It is interesting knowing that two Homer scholars, Albert Lord and Milman Parry, demonstrated that the epic poetry of Homer was based on or originated in the oral traditions (or oral lore) of his Greek community, which also means, among other extrapolations, that what later came to be known as “Iliad” and “Odyssey” were, in fact, in oral forms before were collected in book forms.

There have also been subtle references to the lyric poetry of Ancient Greece. At least not everyone agrees with this characterization (Scott Timberg):

“And most of Dylan’s lyrics don’t stand up terribly well as poetry…Slate’s Stephen Metcalf makes a well-argued case, which I am at least partially sympathetic to, that his songs aren’t really poetry at all.”

The above notwithstanding, so far, we have not come to any information where the poetic language of Dylan’s music is compared to Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott’s three-hundred-page-plus “Omeros (1990).”

Is this prestigious recognition bestowed on Dylan, a raconteur and rhapsodist, on the basis of what the Ugandan scholar, literary theorist, and linguist Pio Zirimu called “orature” (“oral literature”)? Thus far, no controversy has greeted this announcement as it did in the case of President Obama, Henry Kissinger, Wangari Maathai, or Yasser Arafat!

And whether the Swedes love him because he gives them a concert almost every year, whether the Swedes awarded him the prestigious “Polar Music Award (2000)”; whether the Swedes see him fundamentally as a freedom fighter; or whether the Swedes see his earlier corpora of folksongs as literary texts, because modernist writers from James Joyce and Marcel Proust and Ezra Pound to T.S. Eliot, and from the psalmist King David (Old Testament) to Elizabethan writers and moralists influenced him, is beyond the point.

There is even a speculation making the rounds that the Swedes merely want to make up to the Americans for not the Academy’s failure to give the Nobel Prize in Literature to an American since Toni Morrison (1993). In other words to appease the Americans. It bears reminding our readers the primary reason which, according to Horace Engdahl, a former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, explains why an American has not received the prestigious prize since 1993 (Vilhelm Carlstrom; our emphasis):

“Besides being too ‘sensitive to trends in their own mass culture, US authors are ‘restrained by ignorance’…The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t participate in the big dialogue of literature…what I [Engdahl] said expresses a conviction resulting from more than ten years of assiduous labor

Whatever the reasons for Dylan’s nomination which we might get to know in fifty years from now (2066) if the Norwegian Nobel Committee does not change or revise its regulations on its classified archives/database, the fact still remains that he is still the 2016 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Let us remember that thirty years after Soyinka had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the debates still continues in parts of the African world, unabated, why it did not go to Achebe instead, or why Achebe was not awarded one. There were even calls for Soyinka to recommend the Nobel Prize in Literature for his colleague in 2013! Here is Soyinka’s stinging riposte to the callers:

“Let us quit this indecent exercise of fatuous plaints, including raising hopes, even now, with talk of ‘posthumous’ conferment, when you know damned well that the Nobel committee does not indulge in such tradition. It has gone beyond ‘sickening.’ It is obscene and irreverent. It desecrates memory.

“This conduct is gross disservice to Chinua Achebe and disrespectful of the life-engrossing occupation known as literature. How did creative valuation descend to such banality? Do these people know what they’re doing—they are inscribing Chinua’s epitaph in the negative mode of thwarted expectations. I find that disgusting.”

“…What the literary enterprise is about? Was it the Nobel that spurred a young writer, stung by Eurocentric portrayal of African reality, to put pen to paper and produce ‘Things Fall Apart’?

“Chinua is entitled to better than being escorted to his grave with that monotonous, hypocritical aria of deprivation’s lament, orchestrated by those who, as we say in my part of the world, ‘dye their mourning weeds a deeper indigo than those of the bereaved’. He deserves his peace. Me too! And right now, not posthumously.”


“These songs of mine, they’re like mystery plays, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. And they sound like they’ve been on the hard ground” (Bob Dylan).

Those of our writers who are aiming for the Nobel Prize in Literature should know henceforth that “literature” means many things to the Swedish Academy. It means more than what one writes, to encompass what and how one writes what one sings (“sheet music”). Just like our writers, our musicians must also take note or pay attention to this new definition of “literature.”

Ironically, unlike Bob Dylan, Wole Soyinka, a musician and guitarist in his own right, fortunately won the prestigious prize not for his maverick musicianship but for his complex narrative literature, drama specifically. The irony, if we should add, is that the Swedish Academy is not even getting any response from Dylan whether or not he is going to formally accept the award.

He lent his militant musical voice to the cause of the civil and rights of and social justice for African Americans (and other disadvantaged communities in the United States), writing most of the protest songs for these eras according to some writers in addition to donating his money and time for these causes. Let us not ignore the fact that Dylan, America’s Bob Marley, is a writer as well. In fact his partially flavored stream-of-consciousness novel, “Tarantula,” reminds us of the works of Ben Okri, Salman Rushdie, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a memoir “Chronicles: Volume 1”!

Yes, some of us have a special faiblesse for him given his profound lyrical feuilleton. That is, those of us who have and been listening to his music know he is a great songwriter with a powerful gravelly voice known for its strong semblance of an eloquent language of lyric poetry.


Lisa Respers France. (October 18, 2016) “Nobel Prize Has Stopped Knock, Knock, Knocking On Bob Dylan’s Door.” CNN Entertainment. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/18/entertainment/bob-dylan-noble-prize-trnd/

David Remnick. (October 13, 2016). “Let’s Celebrate the Bob Dylan Nobel Win.” The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/lets-celebrate-the-bob-dylan-nobel-win

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1913 (Rabindranath Tagore). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1913/

Alex Lubet. (October 16, 2016). “Tagore, Not Dylan: The first lyricist to Win the Nobel Prize for Literature Was Actually Indian.” Retrieved from http://qz.com/810668/rabindranath-tagore-not-bob-dylan-the-first-lyricist-to-win-the-nobel-prize-for-literature-was-actually-indian/

Alex Lubet Profile. Retrieved from https://apps.cla.umn.edu/directory/profiles/lubet001
Alison Flood. (May 20, 2013). “Calls for Chinua Achebe Nobel Prize ‘Obscene,’ Says Wole Soyinka.” Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/20/chinua-achebe-nobel-prize-wole-soyinka

Scott Timberg. (October 13, 2016) “Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize: He Brought Sophistication To The Language of Popular Music Like No One Else.” Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2016/10/13/dylan-deserves-the-nobel-prize-he-brought-sophistication-to-the-language-of-popular-music-like-no-one-else/

Stephen Metcalf. (October 13, 2016). “Bob Dylan Is a Genius of Almost Unparalleled Influence, but He Shouldn’t Have Gotten the Nobel.” Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/10/13/why_bob_dylan_shouldn_t_have_gotten_the_nobel_prize_for_literature.html

Grant Trimboli. “Bob Dylan Presented with Medal of Freedom.” (May 30, 2012). Retrieved from http://underthegunreview.net/2012/05/30/bob-dylan-presented-with-medal-of-freedom/

Vilhelm Carlstrom. (October 13, 2016). “Here’s Why The Swedish Academy Just Shockingly Gave Bob Dylan The Nobel Prize in Literature.” Retrieved from www.nordic.businessinsider.com/the-swedish-academy-lierature

By Francis Kwarteng

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