Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
How did a 60s rock star score the world’s top literature prize? Because Scandinavia is in love with American counterculture.
Bob Dylan’s new Nobel Prize in Literature has proved polarizing, to say the least. While Salman Rushdie defended the singer-songwriter as a “brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition,” Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh was less generous, saying on Twitter that it was an “ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”
But in the rush to debate what literature is and whether Dylan creates it, there’s a question here that fewer critics have explored: Is this the most Swedish thing ever?
You see, while the North American liberal love of things Swedish is well documented (those stylish interiors! That paid paternity leave!), a certain brand of Swede has a corresponding affection for American culture. As Dominic Hinde, author of A Utopia Like Any Other: Inside the Swedish Model, wrote today on Twitter and in The Scotsman, the Nobel nod for a 75-year-old American pop star speaks volumes about a certain strain of contemporary Scandinavian taste.
The decision to give it to Bob Dylan is so classically cultural-middle-class Swedish it makes perfect, weird, sense.— Dominic Hinde (@DominicMHinde) October 13, 2016
He’s right. The average Swede’s impeccable command of English is not solely from the country’s high educational standards—it’s a product of a constant diet of, and love for, American pop culture. There’s no way that they could get their English that good if they weren’t consuming mass quantities of Anglophone films, TV shows, and music.
When musicians such as Robyn or Jens Lekman, who are considered quintessentially Swedish, open their mouths to sing, it’s not the British English of their relatively near neighbors that comes out of their mouths—it’s a twangy version of standard American, with vocabulary to match.
The fandom of the Nobel judges is of a particular kind—the fondness of Sweden’s educated middle class for Baby Boom-era counterculture. Hinde notes that this is the country that produced the hit documentary The Black Power Mixtape (a hit in Europe), which mixed outrage at U.S. racial discrimination with unfeigned hero worship of those who fought it. Both Dylan and alt-country queen Emmylou Harris have won the nation’s top music prize recently. Recognizing Dylan as literary luminary not only taps into this enthusiasm, it validates a generation’s enthusiasms—and shows the world exactly what Sweden’s cultural elite really warm to.
That’s arguably the minor issue with Dylan’s latest and most unexpected honor. It’s not that he’s really undeserving of an award for writing. (Three years ago, critic Bill Wyman effectively laid out the case for and against.) But in cleaving so exactly to prevailing educated taste among Swedish Baby Boomers, Dylan’s win has let the Nobel mask slip to reveal the mortals behind it. The Wizard of Oz has stepped out from behind the curtain. It turns out that the powers that anoint civilization’s enduring literary titans are just a bunch of middle-aged Swedish dudes in a room, handing awards to the musical heroes of their distant youth.