If I was Bob Dylan and had the misfortune or good fortune to win a Nobel Prize in literature, I would have faced a real problem. I would be a songwriter, not an author. I would get a prize that had never before been awarded to a Song And Dance man, as Dylan once described himself. I would be told that there was a lot of money coming my way if I did one thing, write a speech. So far so good, right?


So I am Bob Dylan and I do not like to follow orders much of the time. I do not need the money exactly, but what the heck? So I begin thinking. Some big authors who won just wrote a page or two for all that money.

I don't want to do that. I want to show people exactly how I go about my craft. I am not Herodotus or Shakespeare or Faulkner, but the Nobel folk have said my work ranks with the best and maybe it does. I don't know and I really don't care.

So here's what I'll do

I will not give them a page. I will not try to write the Gettysburg Address. No way. I will show them how I deal with literature as a song and dance man. I will perform a speech with three long verses. I will say there are three incredible books that informed my existence. How about “The Odyssey” by Homer. Maybe Melville's "Moby Dick," and something about war and peace. Tolstoy! Nope -- Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on The Western Front."

Earn my pay

That's a good piece of work.

Now I will grab these texts somewhere. (Hums a little tune. Googles.) Bingo. SparkNotes. Summaries. Character descriptions. Clean. Fantastic.

End of impersonation

A lot of writing on the Web began as someone else's writing.

The amount of material Dylan took from SparkNotes and massaged a bit was actually a tiny portion of what was quite a remarkable performance by Dylan. Do I think he read those books? Maybe. Maybe not. Do I think he made the books into entertainment? Absolutely. Do I think he cared if his use of SparkNotes was detected? I doubt it.

It's a skill

Using other people's stuff is a matter of skill, whether you are sampling an image, a sound, or scraps of text. Most of the time it is far easier to write original material. I have written many songs. One of my songs is very close in tune to "Romance in Durango" by Dylan because I love the tune. People quote others all the time.

What harm is involved?

Dylan will receive more harm from small-minded responses than he caused by using SparkNotes. I think Bob overreacts in the Times article by comparing his Nobel speech critics to having been called Judas for going electric. But I am not him. He has a right to be angry. The speech was a good performance and the summaries were enlightening -- and I'd rather listen to a tempest than follow a tempest in a teapot.