In the end, Bob Dylan didn’t go to Sweden for his Nobel, but he sent his old friend Patti Smith and a wry but gracious speech instead. Sure, in the text he compares himself to Shakespeare, but not in the way you’d think. His comparison is funny (check out his Hamlet jokes!), and also illuminating of his own creative process:
I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”
But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years. Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”
He concludes by thanking the Nobel academy for answering the question for him (they said yes, btw).
Accepting the award on his behalf, and singing a gorgeous folk cover of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was none other than Patti Smith, who had to stop partway through because she was so nervous. The song, which has been linked to the Cuban Missile Crisis, is a dystopian warning, a desolate future only brightened by the artist’s determination to keep singing and storytelling through the darkness. (Read a great analysis here).
After all the fuss, the whole thing turned out to be quiet and endearing.