American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan recently won a Nobel Prize for literature-sparking controversy, with many contesting the changing nature of the esteemed prize and the scope it covers. After a stint of silence from the singer, he came out to say he was “speechless” about receiving the award, but last week it was announced he would not attend the ceremony.

Dylan’s songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone” highlighted the rebellious nature and anti-war spirit of the 1960s generation, making him a cultural icon of protest and dissent. Recognising this, the Swedish Academy honoured him for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

Curiously, the 75 year-old singer took an unusually long time to contact the Academy and acknowledge the award.

Suprisingly, the mention of the award, which had been put up on his official website a week after being listed the winner, has now been taken off.

Finally breaking the silence earlier this month, Dylan contacted the Academy to express his gratitude over the award. He said: “This news about the Nobel Prize left me speechless. I appreciate the honour so much”.

Before this acknowledgement, a member of the Academy had said the singer’s silence on the prestigious award was “impolite and arrogant.”

According to Nobel rules, the winner has to give a lecture on their subject within six months, so for Dylan that could even be in the form of a concert, to receive the prize of £700,000. The award ceremony takes place next month, on December 10 commemorating the death anniversary of dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel.

Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy which organises the prize reported that Dylan had gotten in touch to say he was honoured to receive the prize. “He wishes he could receive the prize personally, but other commitments make it unfortunately impossible.” She added that it was an unusual decision, but not exceptional for winners to decline to attend the ceremony and the £700,000 prize.

Other Nobel Prize winners have previously rejected the award, notably Jean-Paul Sartre, who refused to be “transformed into an institution”. He eventually appealed to be given the prize money but was rejected.

Dorris Lessing, who won it in 2007 had said she was too old to attend. Harold Pinter was unable to attend as he was in hospital when he was invited to the ceremony in 2005.

Could Dylan’s rejection of the ceremony be a sign of the Academy’s lowering of reputation or is Dylan simply snubbing the Nobel institution? Emeritus professor of English literature at University College London, John Sutherland said: “I think it’s going to have a rather chilling effect in terms of diminishing the authority of the world’s greatest literature prize”.

While many are celebrating the breakthrough of musicians being recognised for lyrical success, others have disputed the fact that Dylan is labelled the first musician to have been given the award.

In 1913, Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize for literature. He was also a musician.

Tagore is mostly recognised for his literature and has unparalleled achievements under his belt. His work has been used for national anthems for Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, something no other artist can boast. His output of music is hugely impressive and still continues to be used in films.

The Nobel website principally recognises Tagore’s volumes of verse, plays, short stories and novels he wrote but merely mentions his work as a musician as an afterthought stating the artist “also left … songs for which he wrote the music himself”.

Whether Dylan will deliver his lecture/concert within six months and receive the prize money is yet to be seen but it’s important to remember that another musician has also previously won the award.

– Faima Bakar, Correspondent (Our World)

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