Almost every year since its inception in 1901, the Nobel Committee has handpicked the figures that their voters believe represent the superlative in chemistry, literature, peace, physics and physiology. These laureates are then added to the annals of history, to be forever remembered as one of that period’s best and brightest, master of their respective trades. Indeed, past winners include many figures whose names are commonly found in history books across disciplines and across the world: Marie Curie, Jimmy Carter, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Martin Luther King. However, this myriad of names was forever altered when, last week, the first prize ever given to a sing-songwriter was awarded to Bob Dylan in the Literature category for “having created new poetic expressions within the American song tradition.”

This unprecedented decoration in a field usually reserved for novelists, poets, and the occasional philosopher predictably sparked immediate debate and controversy. Members of the literary and editorial community spoke out emphatically both for and against the nomination, arguing heatedly over the merits and downsides of choosing a musician to represent a community of writers. While some argue that Dylan embodies the belief and emotion of an entire American generation, others claim that the committee’s choice is both unfair and disrespectful towards those who rightly deserved the award. The public contention over Dylan’s nomination will substantially affect the trajectory of the award, as well as the legacy of the recipient himself. The choice of Dylan to represent the literary community’s finest both reinforces the subjective nature of a merit based system and highlights the tendency of the Academy to push the boundaries and standards for otherwise limited awards.

In many instances throughout history, the Academy has redefined the position of the Nobel Prize in intellectual and scientific communities, and has chosen some highly controversial winners. Most recently, in 2009, Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace prize after less than a year into his Presidency: they cited his potential to bring about change as the impetus for the choice. This led to general outrage in the international intellectual community, and even prompted Obama himself to claim, “I do not feel I deserve to be in the company of such great leaders.” The committee also expanded the Literature category in 1997, when Dario Fo was chosen for his performance art pieces along with his written works.

In a sense, choosing Bob Dylan as the winner is simply a way of reinforcing the Academy’s efforts to push the boundaries of what is considered literature, especially because there is no section for music that he could be honored in. This has been done before in the other categories; after John Nash won the award for economics in 1994 for what was actually a combination of sociology and game theory, the category expanded to include these tangential fields, as well as the academic circles accompanying them. Some also saw Dylan’s win as a victory of inclusion for what is considered “low culture” – forms of popular and consumer culture not usually recognized by intellectual awards such as the Nobel or Pulitzer. As LA Times Journalist Carolyn Kellogg stated, “The Nobel, in recognizing Dylan’s work as literature, acknowledges that artists create works of popular culture with just as much care, control, courage and genius as Ernest Hemingway did sitting down at a typewriter.”

This categorization of Dylan as a poet rather than a musician is somewhat problematic for his own legacy, as well as for those of the other writers.

However, while choosing Dylan does seem to insinuate a stretching of the Literature category, we have reason to doubt that this decision will lead to an overall inclusion of music as part of the literature prize. After the Academy released the nomination, it stressed that Dylan was picked for his written word only, and not the musical aspects associated with it. According to Nobel Permanent Secretary Sara Danius, the justification for the award follows the argument that poetry has been accompanied by music since the classical tradition. She argues, “We still read Homer and Sappho [without music] and we still enjoy it. And the same thing with Bob Dylan. He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the grand English poetic tradition.”

But this categorization of Dylan as a poet rather than a musician is somewhat problematic for his own legacy, as well as for those of the other writers. First of all, it presents him with an award that is supposed to recognize a lifetime achievement while honoring what is technically only half of his work. It seems artificial to attempt to separate the lyrical aspect of Dylan’s compositions from the melodic since they were conceived as a single, whole work. It also sidelines the achievements of those whose portfolios are produced solely in the literary field, effectively eliminating traditional writers —such as Philip Roth, who was considered a favorite for this year’s choice — from contention for an award that was created for them. It implies that “a byproduct of Dylan’s main job is as good or better than the life’s work of Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, Adonis, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or so many other authors theoretically in contention.”

Ultimately, the choice of whether or not this is true must be left up to the individual. The anachronism “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has always held some truth, for better or for worse, and once a piece of art is created, the producer will never be around to justify it. Therefore, while criticism and analysis of certain works may have broad, sweeping trends, there is always room for a dissenting opinion. This subjectivity also makes presenting awards for the “best” of anything very difficult; someone will always think that another piece deserves the honor. In the end, the Academy has the power to expand their categories at their own discretion; they will always be able to justify testing the limits of the boundaries they set for themselves by simply adding on to the pre-existing precedents for the awards. So while Dylan may not be a traditional choice to represent the best of today’s literature, by giving the Nobel Committee the power to give the award at their own discretion, we have placed in their hands the ability to shape the classifications for winners as well.


If the Nobel Prize in Literature was established to celebrate words that empower, then the Swedish Academy’s selection of Bob Dylan is long overdue. In the past fifty years, one would be hard pressed to find an individual — presidents and popes included — whose words have had a more profound societal impact than Dylan. With the scratchy spin of the vinyl and the crackling of the radio, he disseminated ideas with poetic messages that verged on the prophetic. Through his words, Bob Dylan dramatically effected the trajectory of world culture through his reflection on social justice and his lasting influence on the masses and political leaders alike. More than simply honor his poetic contribution, the Academy’s selection of Dylan proves that he is still a figure engrained in the American political and social landscape.

Despite his reluctance to consciously enter the political arena, Dylan’s influence has had a vast and meaningful impact on politics. Breaking into the world of music in 1961 as a politically charged songwriter, Dylan emphasized the agency of his listeners in the issues of the era.  This marked a clear shift in the nature of political expression in music.  While many of his successors, such as Sam Cooke in “A Change is Gonna Come” and Pete Seeger in “We Shall Overcome,” offered listeners fortitude in the face of oppression by stressing that one day the oppression would end, Dylan advocated the ability of the individual to be the change they seek.  Through major hits like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Dylan called to action likeminded youth, while simultaneously requesting that obstinate sources of power — among them senators, congressmen, mothers, and fathers — to step away from their “rapidly fading” old order.  Dylan’s words helped usher in the new decade, one marked by the promise of political and social progress based upon the agency for change, not faith in it.

Dylan’s commentary on social justice was both timely and poignant, a meaningful combination for many in the American public. He wrote songs that were inextricably linked to specific social injustices in the United States.  In “Only a Pawn in the Game,” he simultaneously lamented the death of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the social degradation that caused a poor white man like Byron De La Beckwith to kill him.  In “Masters of War”, Dylan forcefully admonished the military-industrial complex.  In “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” he mocked fear of communism and counter-culture movements, using the song to warn against the dangers of stifling political expression.  Dylan was remarkably in tune with the American left, which was frustrated by the slow progress of the Civil Rights Movement, uneasy about the increasing American military presence in Vietnam, and still recovering from the witch-hunts of McCarthyism.

Even when Dylan’s music stopped being overtly political, a transition marked for many by his infamous electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, he continued to be a societal figure, forever analogous to the ideals of youth rebellion and dissatisfaction. Dylan’s impact, nebulous by the design of the artist, is perhaps best exemplified in how he inspired his fellow musicians. In serving as an inspiration to those who continued his topical songwriting, Dylan’s legacy multiplied. Credit must be given to Neil Young for the ingenuity in his politically-charged songs; his song “Ohio” with bandmates David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills embodied youth angst after the 1970 Kent State Massacre, and “Let’s Impeach the President” represented the musician’s disapproval of George W. Bush.  However, Young is also quick to give Dylan the recognition he deserves as an inspiration: “[Dylan’s] the master,” Young said in 2005. “If I’d like to be anyone, it’s him.”  In keeping with the post-Dylan era of topical songwriting, both of Young’s songs are calls to action, the former being a call to end political suppression of youth and the latter a call to end the Bush Presidency and with it the War in Iraq.

Dylan’s commentary on social justice was both timely and poignant, a meaningful combination for many in the American public.

Dylan remained a commendable force even after his break with topical songwriting due to his ability to incorporate implicit societal analysis, rather than explicitly discussing political or social issues, in his songs, a strategy later adopted by artists like Bruce Springsteen.  In his memoir Born to Run, released this October, Springsteen paid homage to Dylan, the subtle societal commentator:

Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home [Dylan’s first two non-political albums] were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived…The world he described was all on view, in my little town, and spread out over the television that beamed into our isolated homes, but it went uncommented on and silently tolerated…A seismic gap had opened up between generations and you suddenly felt orphaned, abandoned amid the flow of history, your compass spinning, internally homeless. Bob pointed true north and served as a beacon to assist you in making your way through the new wilderness America had become.”

Dylan’s profound impact on American youth, is supported by empirical data. In the 1979 book Woodstock Census: The Nationwide Survey of the Sixties Generation, Rex Weiner and Deanne Stillman found that 72 percent of the respondents asserted their admiration for Dylan, and claimed that he had significantly influenced them as a societal leader. This statistic made him the most influential individual in the entire study, with only the Beatles, at 79 percent, having more reported influence. These results are even more astonishing when compared to that of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., who only influenced an estimated 62 percent of respondents.

While the legacy of Dylan has long been felt and recognized in many private circles, his impact on the public sphere is also evident. President Obama’s praise of Dylan, delivered during his presentation of the Medal of Freedom to Dylan in 2012, was markedly personal and revealed of Dylan’s deep-rooted impact on Obama himself. At the time, the president said, “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music…I remember, in college, listening to Bob Dylan and my world opening up because he captured something about this country that was so vital.”  And while he is not known to speak that openly about artists, in many ways, President Obama’s embracing of Dylan seems natural. It would only be logical for a man who campaigned for the presidency in 2008 with the messages of change and hope to have found inspiration in the counterculture of Bob Dylan.

However, it should be noted that Dylan as a political symbol has been conversely utilized to challenge the progressive ideals that he represents for so many. There has been a long history of the American judiciary system using quotes from Dylan in cases. However, what is so surprising is that the most notable evocations have come from the more conservative justices, such as Chief Justice John Roberts and the late Antonin Scalia.  The citation of Dylan by the Justices, particularly the late conservative bulwark Scalia, is perplexing.  In 2010, the Supreme Court heard the case of City of Ontario v. Quon, delving into the application of the Fourth Amendment and its ban of unreasonable search and seizure in the modern technological age. The case involved officers from Ontario, California who had used government-issued pagers to send personal messages, some of which were sexually explicit.  The Court ruled that the city had not violated the officer’s Fourth Amendment rights in searching the devices, and that the officers should not have had expected confidentiality when using the government-issued resources. While concurring with the Court’s decision, Justice Scalia nonetheless chastised the Court’s fickle stance on the intersection of technology and privacy. He suggested that the Court’s tendency to handle events like on a literal case-by-case basis shirked its responsibility of informing private action through the lens of the Constitution.  He concluded: “‘The-times-they-are-a-changin’ is a feeble excuse for disregard of duty.” Yet, Scalia’s use of the reference delivers a message far from the intended original meaning of the song.  In quoting this iconic symbol of progress, Scalia suggests that even though entities like technology are in a state of evolution, how our society handles their interaction with our core legal values must remain constant.  Through such analysis, Dylan, an emblem of societal inversion for so many, is equated with the American political left, likening the rebuking of Dylan with a critique of the progressive political current.

In a press conferencein San Francisco in 1965, an astute reporter asked Dylan, “Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?”  Through a cloud of cigarette smoke and with a coy smile, Dylan’s retort was “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man.”  For decades, fans and critics of Dylan alike have attempted to prescribe a set of labels and political policies through which they can understand the ideology he represents.  However, the genius of Dylan as a cultural icon is that even after he left both politics and the limelight, he continues to inspire countless people. In constantly defying the expectations of others, whether it be on the Newport stage in 1965 or winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, Bob Dylan has cemented himself as an emblem of change, progress, and innovation, ideals that remain present in every stage of the American political landscape. These ideals immortalize him an ever-relevant societal and political force.


In a jaw-dropping announcement last month, it emerged that Donald Trump was inexplicably nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. An anonymous nominator from the US submitted a letter to the Nobel committee, arguing that Trump should receive the award for “his vigorous peace through strength ideology.” This episode highlights the flaws in the Nobel nomination process. Contrary to popular opinion, the Nobel Peace Prize is not an apolitical honor, but instead deeply rooted in international politics.

The year-long Nobel selection process is complex and extremely opaque. Initially, the Nobel committee will receive nominations from “qualified nominators,” a list that includes members of national assemblies and governments, members of international courts, relevant academics or professors, and previous recipients of the prize. Then the Norwegian Nobel Committee, made up of five members elected by the Norwegian parliament, will consider the nominations and compose a shortlist. Once this shortlist is compiled, the members are given some time to mull it over and then select the winner through a majority vote. In essence, the most significant international prize for peacemaking and activism lies in the hands of just five Norwegians — and the committee is not known for its transparency.

Of course, the Nobel Peace Prize is no stranger to controversy. The award, limited to only three recipients a year, is by nature subjective, but even so, its recipients have often seemed questionable. One such provocative choice was Henry Kissinger, who won the prize in 1973. Kissinger was selected as a joint winner with North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho for brokering a ceasefire in the Vietnam War. This seemed a dubious choice, particularly as the US was still involved in carpet-bombing neighboring Cambodia. Kissinger is now one of the most polarizing figures in 20th century history, evoking conflicts and American interventionism rather than peace. Even at the time, he certainly wasn’t a popular or unifying choice, reflecting the fact that the Nobel Prize is not always representative of the wishes of the global community.

Although the Nobel Prize is steeped in years of contention, the political motivations behind the selection of recipients have become increasingly evident over time. This became especially clear with the selection of Barack Obama in 2009. Obama had barely been in office for a year when he was awarded the prize; in fact, his nomination came a mere 12 days into his term. He may have made some groundbreaking decisions in those early days, but he certainly didn’t qualify as “the person who has done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations,” as specified in Alfred Nobel’s will.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Nobel Peace Prize is not an apolitical honor, but instead deeply rooted in international politics.

In selecting Obama, the Nobel Committee made an emblematic choice that had little to do with achievement and much to do with hope. It served two very distinct purposes. Firstly, analysts have speculated that the award was a symbolic rejection of the internationally disliked Bush administration. The fact that Obama received the award so early on in his term as President seemed to underscore the distinction between the two leaders and point to a resurgence of American popularity in the global sphere. Secondly, rather than reward past achievements, the Nobel Committee wished to spur on Obama’s attempts to increase global peace and stability. By granting him the Nobel Prize, they hoped to set a high standard of conflict resolution and demilitarization for his entire presidency.

In fact, American politics have often been prominent in Nobel decisions. Besides Obama’s victory, Jimmy Carter won the prize in 2002 in an earlier effort by the Committee to rebuke the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Nobel Committee Chairman Gunnar Berge even went as far as stating the award was “a criticism of the line that the current administration has taken”.

Similarly, geopolitical symbolism has been pivotal in the selection of other Nobel honorees. The 2014 Peace Prize was shared by Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai and Indian children’s rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi. In the announcement, the Nobel Committee was careful to highlight that the award was shared by “an Indian and a Pakistani”, crossing national and religious lines between two rival states. Thus, the scope of the award has expanded from simply honoring peaceful activism to symbolically portraying an idealized vision for the future.

The Peace Prize has evolved in other ways since it was first conceived in 1895. According to the prize’s official website, it is primarily awarded for work in four categories: arms control and disarmament, peace negotiations, democracy and human rights, and work to create a more peaceful world. While most recipients have obviously fallen into one of these categories, it seems as if the Nobel Committee has expanded its scope since the turn of the millennium.

The expansion was most visible in 2004, when the Peace Prize was awarded to Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai. Maathai, who was known for her dedicated work on environmental conservation and women’s rights, hardly fits into the definition of the Prize, which emphasized “the fraternity between nations.” This event heralded a marked expansion from the initial four categories to honor any work that seemed to benefit humankind. Specifically, the award seems to have added a fifth category, fighting climate change and environmental degradation. Aside from Maathai, Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the award in 2007 for their environmental work.

The Nobel Committee has not only expanded its scope, but its choices have also begun to diverge from early precedents. Many Peace Prize recipients used to fit a particular mold: Like Muhammad Yunus and Aung San Suu Kyi, they were often under-recognized world leaders or activists with decades of experience in advocacy. This seems to have shifted slightly in the last decade. While we still have recipients who adhere to this profile, many more seem like high-profile figures. This is particularly apparent in the case of Malala Yousafzai, who was a teenager with only a few years of activism under her belt. Her victory, however, was cheered around the world because it reflected a modern fixation — freedom from religious extremism. Likewise, Obama seemed to be chosen as much for his unifying message and global appeal as for his more tangible achievements.

All of this begs the question: Is the Nobel Prize selling out to the trappings of popularity and public approval? The short answer seems to be yes, but the reality is more nuanced. With the rise of globalization and social media campaigns, activists from around the globe can have their stories become viral in an instant. The Nobel Committee has been forced to adapt to the newly viral nature of activism, leading to many of these decisions. In recent years, gambling sites have decided to take advantage of the fascination with the prize, offering odds on possible winners. Internet campaign communities have also become involved, creating petitions for the public to nominate potential candidates. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Nobel Committee has evolved to take on a more public-oriented image.

But as the Nobel Peace Prize broadens its scope to suit its new mass appeal and tries to incentivize future achievements rather than just reward past exploits, it runs the risk of losing its legitimacy. It is still the preeminent international award for activists and diplomats working towards world peace, but its position is not as secure as it was a decade ago. The prize has become fodder for comedians and satirists, and has even launched a spinoff: the “Ig Nobel Awards,” presented every year at Harvard. Since much of the Nobel Prize’s power and relevance stems from public perception and respect, this could work to undermine its prestige in the years to come.

The Nobel Peace Prize is an essential part of international activism and peacemaking efforts, shining a global spotlight on neglected issues and subtly shaping the convictions of millions. It must be viewed, however, as a product of politics rather than an anti-political or impartial honor. With that in mind, the 2016 selection process becomes all the more interesting. Whatever the Nobel Committee ultimately decides, one can be sure that it will reflect the shifting political affinities at the time.


Last Thursday, the world lost one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. At the age of 87, Colombian author and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in his Mexico City home, after years of battling cancer and suffering from senile dementia.

The public outpour of grief over his death has reached immense proportions. As the multitude of obituaries, Facebook posts and tweets show, Garcia Marquez’s work – inspired almost entirely on his experiences living in Colombia – touched the lives of millions of people across the whole world. He managed to transcend his own time and space to become one of the few authors that captured the soul of Latin America as a whole, while also channeling it through a unique literary voice and projecting it onto regions and generations far beyond his own.

Like many of my friends, I realized the extent of his literary genius in senior-year Spanish Lit back in Puerto Rico, where his classic 100 Years of Solitude was required reading pretty much everywhere. I was excited about the book even before I started reading, as it seemed that all the adults whose opinions I admired and respected had unanimously decided that Gabo – as Garcia Marquez’s readers endearingly call him – had written the singular text of their generation. My dad read it when he was in high school, finished it, and started it again the same day. My mom would talk about it endlessly whenever Garcia Marquez was brought up in conversation. My grandmother fondly remembers the day a friend told her about the new novel that would change the face of Latin American literature. After all the familial praise, reading 100 Years was almost an existential necessity.

It took me a while to understand why this book and this author had captured the imaginations of so many of those close to me, more so than any other writer. I later realized that we all loved Garcia Marquez not just because he was a great author, but also because his works expanded on a pan-Latin American identity that, in the Puerto Rican context, had become politicized.

The characters and stories Garcia Marquez wrote – especially in 100 Years of Solitude – were both familiar and wonderfully exotic. They reflected many of the social tropes we knew from growing up in Puerto Rico, while also contextualizing them as typical experiences across the Latin American continent. For people living in a weird limbo between a Hispanic national identity and US political and economic control, this literary jewel from the South helped to reaffirm a sense of cultural closeness with the region while showing us that Latin American authors were capable of producing literature that could rival or surpass anything produced in the English-speaking world.

“Any interpretation of reality in literature must be political. I cannot escape my own ideology when I interpret reality in my books; it’s inseparable.”

“Garcia Marquez once said, “Any interpretation of reality in literature must be political. I cannot escape my own ideology when I interpret reality in my books; it’s inseparable.” Through his work, he developed the political corollary to pan-Latin American solidarity: opposition towards American imperialism and a defense for the social and political movements that were rising to counter it. He was a vocal individual within the sociopolitical framework of 20th century Latin America. Like so many other intellectuals, he truly became invested in the region’s politics with the onset of the Cuban Revolution. A journalist as well as an author, he journeyed to Havana during the early days of the revolution when he was offered a job at a news agency. He was still working there when the Cubans intercepted coded CIA messages in preparation for the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion. After personally meeting and befriending Fidel Castro, Garcia Marquez was tasked with launching a Bogota bureau for Prensa Latina, a Cuban-sponsored international news service meant to counter American influence in the region.

He eventually quit Prensa Latina, but maintained close ties with Castro as his career developed. Later on he became a staunch defender of the Allende government in Chile when it was threatened and taken over by Pinochet. He also offered support for the left-wing Sandinista movement in Nicaragua. Throughout it all, Garcia Marquez was a strong believer in the region’s self-determination, an optimist with a tendency to romanticize movements for social justice and equality. In his Nobel lecture, he asked of his European audience:

“Why is the originality so readily granted us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change? Why think that the social justice sought by progressive Europeans for their own countries cannot also be a goal for Latin America, with different methods for dissimilar conditions?”

The author’s critics would say that these different methods eventually devolved into another kind of oppression, particularly in Cuba. Indeed, many have called Garcia Marquez’s relationship with Castro the greatest stain on his otherwise grandiose legacy.  However, critics tend to ignore the political effervescence that characterized the author’s formative experiences, as well as those of the many people who made up the Latin American Left of the mid-20th century. They were the product of a specific historical moment, when the region was beset by US-backed dictatorships, violence and inequality. Third World counter-culture movements and new political frontiers were being tested out for the first time.

Many decades have passed since then, but books like 100 Years of Solitude transmit the same energy and sense of urgency that the would-be revolutionaries of the past felt. By projecting this past onto the present, Garcia Marquez’s writing resonated with the struggles that my grandmother, my mom, my dad, and countless others faced across various generations, and contextualized them as part of a regional narrative.

Garcia Marquez was one of the last remaining luminaries of an ageing Revolutionary Left that has slowly receded into myth and memory. The socially just utopia he yearned for may have not materialized, and the struggles he romanticized may not have turned out as he expected. But for my 17-year-old self, isolated both geographically and psychologically from the region and eager to reaffirm my Latin-Americanism, his words opened a window into a reality that was just as magical as his novels. He was – and will continue to be – a link to a Latin America that, despite its turbulent past, is still fighting for unity and progress its in own unique way.