Last week Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. After the announcement, Sara Danius from the Swedish academy said it “had not been a difficult decision” and hoped the academy would not be criticised for its choice. She also went on to compare Dylan with the likes of Homer and Sappho. She said “We’re really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet – that’s the reason we awarded him the prize. He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards. And he’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”

Despite this justification, the announcement has been met with widespread shock and disbelief from novelists, poets and musicians everywhere. There has been argument over the validity over the claim Dylan could even be considered a poet, and a link drawn between him and Leonard Cohen, who was actually a published poet before he became a musician and is still rarely recognised as such. Writer Natalie Kon-yu countered the argument that the choice was a refreshing and radical by saying “Giving the award to any white male writer, no matter what form he may write in, is in no way innovative or inspired. It is simply a return to the status quo – albeit in another genre”. This is a point worth noting, especially considering (as Kon-yu goes on to point out) that within the 115 years since the award was established, only 14 women have been awarded the prize. Maya Angelou, a hugely talented writer and poet, wrote widely acclaimed and influential books and poems that made important statements about race and religion, and she was never awarded the prize. Nor have Toni Morrison or Alice Walker been, or a great many other talented figures.

With this in mind, it is odd that the majority of controversy around the decision has surrounded people’s reluctance to accept Dylan as anything other than a musician. Surely this is a more apt time to reflect on how we treat gender and race in literature, and why we so often return to white males as the so-called pinnacle of literary talent. Why, in the wake of the year of women in literature and amongst so much argument around racism within modern society, is Dylan’s ability to play guitar the largest hindrance to his nomination?

On the other hand, a great many feel Dylan was the perfect candidate for such an award. Granted, he is a hugely talented man and a skilled wordsmith, accomplishing some great feats in music and (to permit to call it such) poetry. ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’ are excellent works and a testament to Dylan’s ability. It is by no means a lack of talent that could account for any of my displeasure at his winning the prestigious accolade; rather, it is my knowledge of equal or greater talent from those such as the aforementioned Maya Angelou that have never received this kind of recognition. A great case could be made for both sides of the argument, however Dylan’s winning raises questions about popular culture and who we acknowledge and why. Some of this debate has been lost in the frenzy, but it is an ongoing and worthwhile one that we can not allow to slip under the radar.