2017 marks the sixtieth anniversary of Albert Camus being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. At forty-six years of age, he was one of the youngest ever recipients of the award and also the first African-born writer to win the prestigious gong. Arranged by Swedish chemist, engineer, inventor, businessman, and philanthropist Alfred Nobel in his will, and first conferred in 1901, the prize is awarded to a writer who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”,[1] with other prizes being awarded to outstanding figures in different fields such as medicine and chemistry. Since its inception, the announcement of the Nobel Laureate in Literature each October has become one of the biggest events in the literary calendar, and each chosen laureate is required to give a banquet speech on receiving the award. In comparing the speech made by Albert Camus in 1957 to the one penned by Bob Dylan in 2016 (and delivered in his absence), we can gain an insight into how these two different iconic figures conceptualise(d) the public role of the writer, and the role that a recipient of the Nobel should take in society.

Despite its eminence, the prize has not been without controversy. According to Burton Feldman, the prize has “become widely seen as a political one” with judges who are prejudiced against writers who do not share their own political preferences.[2] In addition to this, as with many other prominent literary prizes, the Nobel has often been criticised for being biased towards white European writers. For many it also appears to have a distinct Scandinavian bias, with eight writers from the country having won the prize, Sweden has had more Nobel Laureates in Literature than the whole of Latin America and the whole of Asia (each of which has seven). Even on the occasions that the award is conferred on a non-European, the Nobel committee often seem a little tone deaf, such as Chinese writer Mo Yan’s award in 2012. Mo Yan came under scrutiny at the time for his hesitancy to show solidarity with artists in China who were fighting for greater freedom of expression, and the Nobel became embroiled in a political tug of war.[3]

Furthermore, there is often disagreement when the Nobel Laureate in Literature is announced and the writer chosen is deemed not to have been the best choice, the obvious example of this being when Bob Dylan was announced as the 2016 winner and most recent recipient of the Nobel. Scottish novelist and author of Trainspotting Irvine Welsh, for example, went so far as to say, “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies”.[4] Dylan’s credibility, both as a writer of literature and compared to other writers of literature, was questioned. The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard commented that, whilst pleased that the Nobel committee was considering other kinds of literature for the prize, “knowing that Dylan is the same generation as Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, [and] Cormac McCarthy, [made] it very difficult for [him] to accept it”.[5] The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Dylan brought up questions which literary prizes often bring to the fore: what constitutes a great writer, and how can a writer appropriately respond to receiving a prestigious award? Here we turn to the different Nobel banquet speeches delivered by Dylan and Camus to see the perspectives of these two laureates on this issue.

The clamour surrounding Dylan’s surprise victory was only heightened when a whole two weeks passed before he publicly responded to it. In his banquet speech, read by United States Ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji, Dylan claimed, “Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?’”.[6] By contrast, in Albert Camus’ speech exactly 59 years earlier, the central question that he addressed was what he saw as the role of the writer, or artist: “I have found nothing to support me but what has supported me through all my life, even in the most contrary circumstances: the idea that I have of my art and the role of the writer. Let me tell you… as simply as I can, what this idea is”.[7] Whilst emphasising that being an artist comes with a responsibility to others, Camus was asserting himself as a writer of literature unlike Dylan who claimed that it was never really a consideration for him.

It is interesting that two writers who have both been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature – albeit 59 years apart (Camus won the Nobel five years before Dylan recorded his first studio album) – embody such conflicting views on their respective places as artists. Camus focused on the fate of his generation: born at the beginning of the First World War, in their early twenties when Hitler came to power, and reaching adulthood at the time of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. Camus outlined how his contemporaries had the way they saw the world shaped by the revelation of the horrors of the Holocaust and were then left to raise their children in a world threatened by nuclear armageddon. Nobody, he said, could ask this generation to be optimists: they had to “forge […] an art of living in times of catastrophe”.[8] Camus’ generation, he claimed, was “Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where […] intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression”.[9] Sound familiar? Whilst the world of today is by no means exactly the same as it was 59 years ago, the disillusionment and fear about which Camus talks – which may not have been felt so deeply in the years preceding 9/11 and ensuing political events – have once again come to the fore. The world has been left reeling over the rise of populism, and politics is feeling increasingly unstable. Furthermore, there are daily news stories about how digitalisation is dragging us ever closer to dystopian worlds previously seen only in fiction, and the newspapers remind us regularly that we’re once again faced with the possibility that “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”.

En 1943, Albert Camus prend les rênes de Combat, le journal d’une tendance de la Résistance française à l’Occupation, et y dévoile son talent d’éditorialiste clandestin. ©RENE SAINT P

What Camus was saying in 1957 is still resonant in 2016 and 2017, but his and Dylan’s responses to the recognition of their literary significance reflect two dichotomous views on how writers should live in the spotlight. Camus was heavily involved in public life throughout his literary career, having a well-documented friendship and then spat with Jean Paul Sartre, writing in national newspapers such as L’Express, and addressing the subject of the Algerian War of Independence in public speaking engagements. For Camus, being a writer meant being a public figure, being in the “service” of others.[10]

Dylan, on the other hand, is much more cryptic. Despite being active in the US civil rights movement and writing some of the most famous protest songs of all time, Dylan has repeatedly refused to be defined by this label. Among others such as “Restless Farewell”, the song “It Ain’t Me Babe” has been interpreted as a rejection of the role of political spokesman that was imposed upon him.[11] This rejection of the expectations bestowed upon him by the general public has defined his career, with one notable early example being when Dylan’s non-conformity was amplified (literally) at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where he performed with an electric guitar and was booed off the stage. He now lives a private life, with the vast majority of public appearances being stops on his “never-ending-tour”, during which he rarely engages with his audience outside of performing.

How ironic it is that, in being awarded the Nobel Prize, a writer becomes a kind of talisman. Dylan has been (despite himself) a talismanic figure for five decades now, and a case could in fact be made that his famous reclusiveness has in part enabled his extraordinary longevity. Camus was also seen as talismanic but, in stark contrast to Dylan, his life in the public eye was tragically cut short in a car accident only three years after receiving the prize. Unlike prizes such as the Man Booker or the Pulitzer which are given to individual works, the Nobel’s recognition of a writer’s entire oeuvre elevates them to an almost mythical status which, even for me as a literature fanatic, is difficult to maintain.

Perhaps this is why there is such a seemingly immutable contrast in Camus and Dylan’s responses to being awarded the Nobel. Camus was happy to accept that his writing came with a responsibility to others, but this does not mean that all great writers must act as such and, regardless about how you feel about him being awarded the Nobel, Dylan definitely does not fit this mould. It is one thing to celebrate art and to celebrate an artist – Dylan and Camus both mean a lot to a lot of people, myself included – but it is quite another thing to glorify the art or the artist to the level of a deity. To try and determine the extent to which a writer should live in the spotlight and be a spokesperson for the masses would be both snobbish and restrictive of different forms of artistic expression, and would remove the intrigue inherent in the way that each individual artist chooses to live under the gaze of the spotlight.

[1] “The Nobel Prize in Literature”, The Nobel Prize/ www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature

[2] Burton Feldman, The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige (New York:Arcade, 2001): 58.

[3] Perry Link, “Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?”, The New York Review of Books 6th December 2012. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2012/12/06/mo-yan-nobel-prize/

Tom Phillips, “Mo Yan stirs controversy with support for Chinese president”, The Telegraph 11th January 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/11338916/Mo-Yan-stirs-controversy-with-support-for-Chinese-president.html

[4] Quoted in Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Alison Flood, “Bob Dylan wins Nobel prize in literature”, The Guardian 13th October 2016. www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/13/bob-dylan-wins-2016-nobel-prize-in-literature

[5] “Karl Ove Knausgaard webchat – your questions answered on self-loathing, love and Jürgen Klopp”, The Guardian 17th October 2016. www.theguardian.com/books/live/2016/oct/13/karl-ove-knausgaard-webchat-some-rain-must-fall-my-struggle

[6] Bob Dylan, “Bob Dylan – Banquet Speech”, The Nobel Prize. www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2016/dylan-speech_en.html

[7] Albert Camus, “Albert Camus – Banquet Speech”, The Nobel Prize. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1957/camus-speech.html

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (London:Omnibus, 2011): 222.