Nobel for Bob Dylan: Nordic snobbery or artistic injustice?*

This article, of the famous Cuban writer, was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo and is reproduced in Spanish and English thanks to an agreement with IPS Cuba.

For two years I have been submerged in the writing of a new novel. Even when a writer has been practicing his profession for a long time, writing a novel is always – and I believe it is the same for almost all the writers who respect themselves and their presumed readers – an arduous and tiring task. I already needed four to finish my novel Herejes and five to write the end of El hombre que amaba a los perros. Why is it so difficult to write a novel? Why do writers, even the most professional, feel they have never said what they wanted to say in the best way in which they are (or believe that it is) able to say it, and return once and again on what has been written, sweat, doubt, fear?

Hemingway once confessed that he had written almost 40 times the end to Farewell to Arms. When asked what had been the problem his answer was as simple as terrible and revealing: the problem was the order of the words, he confessed. Because in reality everything boils down to that: placing one word after the other to be able to express something that has sense and achieve this in the most beautiful and clear way as possible. What’s difficult is to achieve it.


Milan Kundera, meanwhile, has spoken of a peculiar characteristic of the art of the novel: and it is that the writer who starts to write that book is different from the one who has finished writing it. For two reasons: the process of writing a novel, of getting out from within so many things to speak of the mysteries (or the evidences, or the miseries, or whatever) of the human condition changes you, whether you want it or not. And the other reason is even more dramatic: to write a novel you can need two, three, five years, at times more, and between that day of the start and the one of termination, that time that has gone by makes you not be the same between one moment and the other. That is the law of life.


Gabrial García Márquez said several times what he had to do to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novelist gave up all his tasks of survival, shut himself in to write with his coffees and his cigarettes, and trusted that something would come out of his book since on the contrary his family would be on the other side of the famous border of bankruptcy. And he wrote this way for years.


It seems evident that the literary profession entails that certain dose of masochism, of self-immolation, a painful process through which the artist must struggle against all demons we are capable of imagining. Of course, I always refer to the real writers, those who make of their art an instrument to penetrate “in the soul of things,” as Flaubert wanted. But that real writer assumes the risks and makes an effort in that endeavour. Why? Well because they cannot avoid it.


I am convinced that I will never be a writer with the qualities of Hemingway, Kundera, García Márquez or Flaubert, just to mention the already cited. But if I have learned something in my almost 40 years fighting with writing it is that writing literature is a tremendously difficult profession, at times lacerating, plagued by uncertainties and, in general, after so much effort, awarded with indifference. Because only a good book among many good books is able to become a reference, a commercial success (a success that, as would be expected, is more accessible to some bad books).


The poets, those beings determined to discovering for us that life can be expressed with other words, devote themselves to their work knowing, in general, that they will barely be rewarded for it.  Poetry has never sold well and, though in certain times and historical situations poets have enjoyed great social and cultural prestige, their effort does not frequently have great impact. Nowadays everyone says that “poetry does not sell,” and it actually does sell. But poets exist, dream, chisel the languages, enlighten the mind. Because they are poets and they cannot avoid it.


And the playwrights? Is writing theatre easier? As in the case of poetry, in my opinion I do not have the personal experience, but the fact of making some characters move before the eyes of others and to tell through their words something as difficult as piecing together a veritable plot, undoubtedly implies an incredible creative effort.


I will only say that with surprise I have seen how the literary prize that is supposedly the most important in the world is awarded to a writer of song lyrics. One of the greatest and most influential creators of song lyrics. A poet of the song. Of course, the great Bob Dylan. The Nobel Prize for Literature. Nordic snobbery or artistic injustice? I don’t know, but I believe it has occurred to no one to give the Grammy Award – let’s place all existing distances between one and the other recognition – to a poet or a novelist or a playwright because of the musicality of their texts. Alejo Carpentier and Carlos Fuentes, among others, died without the Nobel Prize for Literature. Milan Kundera and Philip Roth, among others that deserve it, are waiting for theirs…. More than ever, the Swedish Academy’s answer is floating in the air.


*This article was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

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