Bob Dylan, the unofficial poet laureate of the rock ’n’ roll generation, has now been officially placed alongside such literary greats as Philip Roth and Adrienne Rich, not to mention biographies of Shakespeare and Willem de Kooning. All were among nominees announced Saturday for the National Book Critics Circle prizes.
Dylan, whose memoir “Chronicles, Vol. 1” was a favorite with both reviewers and readers, is among the finalists for biography/autobiography, his competition including two acclaimed best sellers: Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton and Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, “Will in the World.” Also nominated were John Guy’s Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” and “De Kooning: An American Master,” by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.
Virtually all literary efforts by rock stars, from the Kinks’ Ray Davies to Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, are laughed off by critics, but Dylan has been praised for an unusually rich and engaging book, writing passionately about such influences as Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson and recalling his years as a young singer-songwriter in Greenwich Village.
Dylan, who more than anyone inspired rock ’n’ rollers to think of themselves as poets, recounts his often mysterious past in an offhand, nonlinear style, from reading Civil War-era newspapers in the New York Public Library to sharing a hamburger backstage with Tiny Tim.
“Who can possibly compete with Bob Dylan?” fellow finalist Ron Chernow said with a laugh. “But the reviews have been so uniformly interesting I’m not surprised.”
“I’m of Dylan’s generation, so it’s a thrill for me,” said nonfiction nominee Stephen Greenblatt, a leading Shakespeare scholar who at age 61 is two years younger than Dylan. “I had never thought I would be competing for an award with him.”
Critics are known for championing the obscure, but this year’s list was filled with prominent names and titles, especially compared with last fall’s National Book Awards, a supposedly more glamorous affair.
Roth, whose omission from the finalists for the National Book Awards was widely criticized, was cited by the NBCC for “The Plot Against America,” his dsytopian novel of the United States under the presidency of Charles Lindbergh. Fellow fiction nominees include another prominent book bypassed for the National Book Award, Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead”; Edwidge Danticat’s “The Dew Breaker” and two British releases, Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning “The Line of Beauty” and David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” a Booker finalist.
Books published overseas in English are also eligible for the book critics prize.
Kevin Boyle’s “Arc of Justice,” winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction, was among the nominees for general nonfiction. The other finalists were Edward Conlon’s “Blue Blood,” Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “The Reformation: A History,” David Shipler’s “The Working Poor: Invisible in America” and Timothy B. Tyson’s “Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story.”
The poetry finalists included two California-based writers whose work dates back to the 1950s: 75-year-old Adrienne Rich, nominated for “The School Among the Ruins,” and “Danger on Peaks,” by 74-year-old Gary Synder, a member of the “Beat” movement which so greatly influenced Dylan. The other finalists were D.A. Powell’s “Cocktails,” Brigit Pegreen Kelly’s “The Orchard” and James Richardson’s “Interglacial.”
Richard Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, was among the nominees for criticism, for the anthology “Paper Trail: Selected Prose 1965-2003.” Also cited was one of the world’s most respected critics, James Wood, for “The Irresponsible Self,” and Craig Seligman’s “Sontag & Kael,” a book about two former NBCC finalists, Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael. The other finalists for criticism were Patrick Neate’s “Where You’re At: Notes From the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet” and Graham Robb’s “Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century.”
A lifetime achievement award will be given to Louis D. Rubin, Jr., founder of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a North Carolina-based publisher known for such Southern writers as Jill McCorckle and Clyde Edgerton.
The awards ceremony will take place on March 18, although a victory for Dylan will do more for his status than for his bank account: There are no cash prizes.
The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974, is a not-for-profit organization of about 600 book editors and critics.