Is music literature?

When news broke that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, we published a post questioning the wisdom of giving the prize to a world-famous musician. Later that day, Seattle Review of Books co-founders Martin McClellan and Paul Constant had a conversation on Slack about whether music should be included in the same context as literature. That conversation turned into an exploration of what literature can (and possibly can’t) do. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

MARTIN: A baseline for poetry or literature should be pieces of textual work that stand as textual work. Performative art is something else (not lesser, but different).

PAUL: I disagree. I believe that imagining literature solely as a printed text erases the majority of the history of literature. It was spoken and sung for thousands of years before print.

MARTIN: I agree on principle that storytelling is bigger and larger, but that literature is using text to capture storytelling. Not on principle — I literally agree. Our disagreement, I think, goes to the word “literature” itself and what it entails. The OED has the first use of it in 1450(!)

PAUL: I think the distinction between a hip-hop song’s lyrics is not very different from blues lyrics, which is not very different from slave songs, which is not very different from oral storytelling. I have Jay-Z’s book of lyrics and it looks like poetry to me. If you presented it to me as a book and I had no awareness of him as an artist somehow, I would obviously interpret it as poetry. Is it good poetry? That’s a different argument entirely. But it reads as poetry.

MARTIN: I think both are valid, in that it’s fine to publish lyrics as poetry, and some would stand on their own as wonderful poetry, and if you were to give a literature award to them, it should be based on its literary, or printed, merit. But, if the transformation of the piece from good or great or whatever to sublime happens in the performance — if the text itself misses something on its own, then it’s not really literature that we’re gauging, I think. And mind you, I’m not arguing one is more or less valid, just that I see a distinction.

PAUL: Does paper have to be involved to make it literature? Static letters? Is it literature if it’s pixels? What if the text has to be moving or manipulated on a screen for its impact to be truly felt? I tend to like broad definitions, and so I define literature as the words, not the medium.

MARTIN: I think pixels are fine. I think letters could move.

PAUL: But if letters manipulated with animation are fine, what makes that any different than the letters being manipulated by voices?

MARTIN: Because the voice adds a performative element, and takes the weight of conveying emotion away from the words and puts it onto another instrument. Human voice will always be more powerful than static words, in terms of empathy-seeking.

PAUL: Wouldn’t an animated e-book do the same thing? There have been e-books that disappear after you read them, and the disappearance is relevant to the story being told. Doesn’t that add a performative element?

MARTIN: Potentially, but I’ve never seen anybody nominated an animated book for any prize. Or, no, it’s not performative, because the performance is automated. It’s a trick, like concrete poetry. The same effect could be had by handing someone a manuscript and a match and making them burn it after reading.

PAUL: The Henry Art Gallery ran a terrific exhibit a few years back of the history of e-books, and many of them were medium-specific. I’m sure that at some point in the future, when e-books shake free from Amazon’s clutches, e-book artists will create prize-worthy books. Just the same way that comics eventually became accepted as prize-worthy books.

MARTIN: Totally. And, by the way, I think comics are literature, even though they have the added aspect of illustrations.

PAUL: I disagree about the automation, by the way. I think a poet writing an abstract poem that makes a reader cast her eyes all over the page to follow a poem is doing the same thing as a singer stretching out a vowel. Or a cartoonist adding a bunch of static panels to extend a moment in a comic. Or an e-book author making words appear at a pace that’s deliberately slower than a reader’s comfortable reading speed, say. Of course, you’re a Gutenberg fanboy and I’m the ADHD-addled novelty-obsessed gadfly, so these divisions make a lot of sense.

MARTIN: They totally do. But the singer is doing more than just voicing words — they are imbuing them with emotion in a way that is very different than the words would say.

PAUL: You can imbue words with different meanings in print in lots of different ways: fonts, spacing. A thousand different writers can make the words “she stepped outside” land in a thousand different ways.

MARTIN: Of course you can, which is what makes awarding writers who convey their meaning clearly so important. Writing is hard, good writing is really hard, and great writing is nearly impossible for most writers, even. Conveying something well is hard. So, here’s an example:

Rockabye baby on the tree tops
When the wind blows the cradle will rock
When the bow breaks the cradle will fall
and down will come baby, cradle and all

It’s a good rhyme, and I can read it aloud, and analyze it. But, that doesn’t explain why it made me cry to sing it to my son the first time. And it wouldn’t have, if I was speaking it. Singing can make pedestrian words meaningful — how else can we understand U2s popularity?

PAUL: Well, but that’s the difference between good poetry and bad poetry. And sure, a good performance can make a bad poem good, but some songwriters are better lyricists than others. And besides, it’s more than the music that makes that poem meaningful for you. It’s history and nostalgia and tradition. The music, I’d argue, is the least important part of that example.

MARTIN: But one of the reason Bob Dylan’s music is powerful (if you like it) is because the forms he uses are old Americana made new by his expression. HIs music is history, nostalgia and tradition. The meaning of African-American music from slave songs, to spirituals, to blues, to rock, to funk, to hip-hop is history, nostalgia, and tradition. None of it exists in a vacuum. And, a singer can evoke that — the toolset is different than the toolset of a writer.

PAUL: That sounds like exactly what I’d expect a good writer to do: to evoke tradition, and to critique it, and to build on it in interesting ways. The only difference is in the ways you can use the toolset: music invokes the passage of time in a different way than the written word. You can’t scan ahead in a song without destroying it. You can’t listen to a song at its own pace. But you still write a song. Songs are still written. And to me that’s the most important part of literature. Sounds to me like we disagree on the output, not the input.

MARTIN: Maybe, yeah. Let me put it this way: if I were to say to a talented singer “Make me feel something without using words” she could. The writer probably couldn’t. They’d end up sounding like Jack Kerouac trying to capture the sounds of the Pacific Surf in Big Sur. Not that it CAN’T be done, but the singer has an easier job of it, because music affects our emotional centers in much different ways than words alone do.

PAUL: This is a very good argument, but a comics artist could make you feel something without words, and you said you consider comics to be literature.

MARTIN: Yes, but “words” in this case would be the baseline of meaning one could convey, so I would say the challenge to a comic artist would be to convey it without resolvable images. Easier to do than the lone writer. Abstract images can be very moving.

PAUL: I think we’ve found the atomic baseline of the argument that we might not be able to split without causing an explosion. Because if you consider an image to be a word, then should paintings be considered literature?

MARTIN: Well, no. And therein lies the rub. I consider comics literature because of the marriage of words and text. But I'd consider Lynd Ward literature and he never uses words. There are some fault points in my argument

PAUL: We’ve both got some faults in our arguments. I think the important thing is that I can see where you’re coming from.

MARTIN: My other fault: I'm trying to hang the argument on visuals because audio books are valid.

PAUL: If audio books are valid, if an audio-only book is valid as literature, then I definitely think music should count as poetry.

MARTIN: Maybe it’s the source, the creation, that is the pivot point for me. Can you use the voice as an emotive tool in the creation of the work? A writer doesn't.

PAUL: But lots of writers read their work aloud as they write. Lots of poets formulate poems by reading them in public.

MARTIN: Yes, but they write them down, as the fixative. The text is the thing, the voice is the process to get there. Whereas with music, the voice is the thing.

PAUL: Not all poets. Spoken-word poets don’t necessarily write them down. And I call back my point that if you were to encounter song lyrics in print for the first time without any previous knowledge that they were songs, you’d naturally read them as poetry.

MARTIN: We’re back to the front of our argument — I’d argue that spoken word poets who are not writing their work down are not making literature, they’re making something else. And why not make something else? I mean, I’m not complaining about the right of the Nobel committee to hand the award to who they feel is correct. My question only comes up with the classification of what is or isn’t literature.

PAUL: It’s been a lovely walk around the garden.

MARTIN: Hah, it has been a good stroll.

PAUL: As for me, I’m happy to let Lesley Hazleton have the last word: