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Herald on Sunday editorial: Times are changin' for Nobel Prize

Alfred Nobel intended that the prizes in his name be awarded for achievements that "have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind".

What exactly he meant by "the greatest benefit" is open to interpretation - and this year's awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan joins a long list of controversial interpretations.

Many in the literary world were stunned when the legendary folk singer captured the world famous award.

Critics and purists cut quick and deep. "I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard," was one of the more humorous attacks.

The counter-attack was equally swift, citing a back catalogue charting the struggle for civil rights and dealing with many of the afflictions of modern life.

It split the literary world; novelist Hari Kunzru griped while Salman Rushdie heaped praise on the decision.

Anyway you look at it Dylan is a curious, contradictory choice.

The issues are several-fold. Should Dylan's work be considered literature? If so, is it really deserving above all others? And how is that reconciled with the lyrics he is often accused of borrowing from elsewhere?

The controversy comes as the Nobel establishment itself undergoes something of a transformation.

Traditionally, awards have been given to old, white men. The events around the accolades have also been sombre and exclusive. To try to overcome this, the Nobel organisations have been steadily working to modernise the prizes' image.

There's no better example than the Peace Prize concert, which last year featured American singer Jason Derulo among others.

If Dylan's award is part of that overhaul it remains an odd choice.

Sure, it's a dramatic move away from the literary purists - but it's still an old, white man; and one many would argue is many years past his best work.

It's not hard to imagine the Nobel judges enjoying the cat among the pigeons. There's no such thing as bad publicity, after all.

As for whether his body of work can be considered literature, it is at least a sub-category. For whether you want to call it a pop song or poetry it is a form of art and, as such, is a search for truth.

By that definition, it's hard to doubt the benefit to mankind.

- NZ Herald

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