Novelist Jonathan Lethem on Bob Dylan’s ‘Mad-Scientist Audacity’
In 2006, novelist and lifelong Bob Dylan fan Jonathan Lethem met Dylan in a Santa Monica, California, hotel room for a highly memorable interview coinciding with the release of Modern Times, which ranged from the singer’s thoughts on file sharing to his unwanted savior’s role: “You know, everybody makes a big deal about the Sixties,” Dylan said. “The Sixties, it’s like the Civil War days. But, I mean, you’re talking to a person who owns the Sixties. Did I ever want to acquire the Sixties? No. But I own the Sixties – who’s going to argue with me? … I’ll give ’em to you if you want ’em. You can have ’em.” On Saturday, Dylan will be honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature; we reached out to influential fans ranging from Al Gore to Stephen King to share their thoughts on the honor. Here, Lethem weighs in on Dylan’s literary legacy.
Listen, the first person to say Bob Dylan’s writing “isn’t poetry for the page,” to my knowledge, was Ellen Willis, in 1967: “When critics call Dylan a poet, they really mean a visionary. Because the poet is the paradigmatic seer, it is conventional to talk about the film poet, the jazz poet.”
But that’s not to say Dylan’s work isn’t writing, anymore than Ginsberg’s “Howl” or Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape isn’t writing. Would anyone claim the prose of writers as diverse as Eileen Myles (who I’ve witnessed giving readings from a music stand, from pages she’d largely memorized and was able to deliver as a rhythmic incantation – you could practically clap along) and Philip Roth (whose best pages work as furious brain-voice rants that practically…