- When Fiction Rocks!
On the heels of Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature there was an immediate outpouring of debate in both academic and popular circles, on Twitter and in the press. The fury on both sides was, perhaps, predictable. Should the world’s most prestigious literary award be allowed to go to a popular rock-and-roll songwriter? Dylan himself seemed aware of the criticism, and in his unconventional Nobel acceptance speech—a twenty-seven minute spoken word recording accompanied by jazz piano—he tackled the question head on: “When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature.”1 In the folksy audio-essay that follows, Dylan reflects on his many literary influences, from Buddy Holly and Lead Belly to Don Quixote, Moby Dick, and The Odyssey. Dylan claims that Odysseus, not unlike the heroes of blues ballads, is “a travelin’ man, but he’s making a lot of stops.” For Dylan, song-writers and writers of literature are influenced by the same themes, the same stories: love, loss, violence, suffering, and so on. Although Bob Dylan is not the only musician to reflect on the confluence between music and literature, his Nobel win has sparked renewed [End Page 282] interest in the relationship between literature and popular music more generally.
As Florence Dore notes in the coda to her new book, Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll, Dylan’s Nobel Prize did not signal that literature and rock are no longer divided along high/low lines; instead, it was another sign that they never were. Dylan’s ballads, which have attracted a number of more serious studies in recent years (including Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America [Double day, 2010]), serve as a touchstone throughout Novel Sounds.2 However, Dylan’s songs are not the book’s primary subject; instead, Dore turns to the mid-century novels of Southern writers in order to identify a shift in literary approaches to the vernacular that took place in both the literature and the music of that era. Novel Sounds, as Dore puts it, attends to the “thematic resonance between 1950s Southern fiction and rock,” and illustrates how writers such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Robert Penn Warren drew on vernacular ballads in ways that echo their rock-and-roll contemporaries (3).
The line (or lack thereof) between literature and music has been a popular topic for scholars of twentieth-century literature, and the recent turn toward sound studies has enabled scholars like Dore to think more broadly about literature’s resonant qualities. The field of African American studies has produced especially strong work on literary sound. Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York UP, 2016), for example, articulates the ways that sound and music have shaped Americans’ perceptions of race. Brent Hayes Edwards’s Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Harvard UP, 2017) and Emily Lordi’s Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature (Rutgers UP, 2013) examine the links between transmedial African American texts and music.3 Like these studies, Novel Sounds also considers the [End Page 283] influence of blues figures such as Bessie Smith and Lead Belly on writers, but it does so in the interest of linking the blues to the emergence of rock and roll. Although there are many excellent scholarly works dealing with blues and jazz writing, and music critics like Greil Marcus have offered insightful views of rock music’s place in American culture, to date there have been very few works of scholarship about the relationship between literature and rock and roll.4 Novel Sounds, which treats a range of authors and texts, is a welcome addition to the growing field of literary sound studies and fills a critical hole in the scholarship.
Part of what makes Novel Sounds such a useful contribution is its focus on...