Sometimes they give their prize to an author who writes in a language that, one suspects, none of the judges can read, sometimes to a writer who is fairly obscure, even in his or her country.
Just occasionally it goes -- as it has this year -- to a popular writer. Sometimes too, it seems like a good conduct medal: For instance, the 1991 winner, South African novelist Nadine Gordimer,
was an opponent of apartheid and a friend of Nelson Mandela's.
The first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded in 1901, and writers of verse and poetry in English have actually done rather well over the years. Kipling got it in 1907, though the citation suggests it was for his fiction rather than his poetry.
Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote in both his native Bengali and English, got it in 1913. Then came W.B. Yeats (1923), T.S. Eliot (1948), Derek Walcott (1992) and Seamus Heaney (1995).
The Nobel has gone to nine American novelists and short-story writers and one dramatist (Eugene O'Neill), but Dylan is the first American poet to receive it, unless you count Eliot, who was a British subject long before winning the Nobel, or the 1987 laureate, Joseph Brodzky, who, at the ceremony identified himself as "Jewish, a Russian poet, English essayist and American citizen."
The Nobel citation declares that Dylan has been awarded the prize "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition
." Well, it's certainly a great tradition, though not one to which the Swedish Academy has paid any attention till now.
Otherwise -- who knows? -- it might have chosen to honor Cole Porter and Frank Loesser. One difference is, I suppose, that Dylan has written songs for himself, and the songwriters of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley wrote numbers for other singers.
Nevertheless the words are there on the page, with the music sounding in your ear as you read -- just like Dylan's.
Some doubtless will frown and curl the lip, accusing the Swedish Academy of deserting its high standards, dumbing down, succumbing to populism or making a bid to escape the charge of being elitist -- even though by any measure every prize is unavoidably.
Lighter-hearted critics may just say the sober Swedes are letting their hair down and being mischievous. Certainly, Dylan is popular -- far more popular than recent Nobel laureates such as Elfriede Jelinek and Herta Müller. So what? A lot of the best art is popular.
There's another way of looking at this award. We have been moving for decades now from a print culture to an audiovisual one.
It's not that print is dying and that people don't still write novels and poems to be read alone in silence; it's just that print has lost its dominance.
Lots of poets, even if they don't strum on a guitar, now write poems to be performed, poems to be heard, rather than poems to be read, just as minstrels and troubadours of the pre-Gutenberg age did.
So in honoring Dylan the Swedish Academy is moving with the times and reflecting this cultural change.
This doesn't of course mean that next year it won't give its literature prize to the author of an 800-page experimental novel written in what is called "a minority language," or for work such as that of Sigrid Undset, the 1928 laureate who won "principally for her powerful description of Northern life during the Middle Ages