Did Bob Dylan Really Plagiarize SparkNotes In His Nobel Lecture?

This month, American bard Bob Dylan finally delivered his Nobel lecture, many months after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The lecture, traditionally given days before the award ceremony in December, must be delivered by those who accept the award within six months. Dylan slipped in his assignment just under the deadline.

Now, however, another Nobel controversy has arisen for the singer-songwriter: Numerous outlets have reported that he may have plagiarized from SparkNotes during a long passage on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in his long-awaited lecture. 

The discovery stems from a line in which Dylan appears to directly quote Moby Dick. “A Quaker pacifist priest, who is actually a bloodthirsty businessman, tells Flask, ‘Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness,’” said Dylan. One problem: that line never appears in the actual novel.

Writer Ben Greenman noted in a blog that the quote appeared to have been fabricated. Then, Andrea Pitzer tracked down a similar quote, not in the book itself but on an entry about Moby Dick on the website SparkNotes ― a website that, like the iconic CliffsNotes, provides summaries, character descriptions and thematic breakdowns of books for students to use during study (or use to skip the reading altogether). In a Slate piece, Pitzer documents over a dozen other instances in which Dylan’s discussion of the classic book closely mirrors language found in SparkNotes.

This may seem to fall in a gray area of plagiarism ― most of the matching snippets Pitzer lists consist of phrases or pacing choices in Dylan’s summary of the book, not full sentences or passages. There’s a good chance that it was at least inadvertent: In preparing his speech, he consulted SparkNotes to brush up on his Melville, then had their framing and word choices floating in his head when he sat down to write. 

Some scholars defended his cribbing from SparkNotes to the Minnesota Star-Tribune, suggesting that it was simply an artistic allusion and even a mocking wink at the Nobel committee. “His lecture is … meant to be a post-modern work of art,” said Alex Lubet, a music professor at the University of Minnesota. 

Maybe it was simple plagiarism. Maybe it was a brilliant, paradigm-shifting artistic web of allusion. Or maybe, and perhaps most disappointingly, Dylan was just being lazy. “He’s on the road all the time. He just turned 76,” pointed out David Yaffe, a Syracuse University professor of humanities, to the Star-Tribune. “You could see him wanting to take a few shortcuts.”

Sure, sure ― except Dylan took an extra six months on his assignment only to turn in one that was hastily cobbled together with the aid of SparkNotes. Would the professors defending the musical icon for taking such “shortcuts” have similar patience for a student who cited SparkNotes instead of the assigned text because they were overwhelmed with classwork? Perhaps ― none of my literature professors were ever impressed by such an excuse.

Stephen Fallon, John J. Cavanaugh Professor of the Humanities at the University of Notre Dame, told HuffPost, “If a student borrowed [from SparkNotes] as Dylan does here, I’d be concerned about plagiarism, but I might give Dylan a pass as he’s not implicitly claiming as his own the ideas of someone else.” Still, “the fact that he clearly turned to SparkNotes raises doubts and also the question of why he didn’t at least skim the novel again before devoting a good chunk of a Nobel lecture to it.” (Editor’s Note: Stephen Fallon is the father of this post’s author.)

Any use of SparkNotes’s interpretations, as opposed to simple plot summary, would be more troubling, he added.

The Nobel Prize in Literature often goes to writers with many decades under their belt and a host of obligations, but this typically does not preclude them from crafting an original, erudite lecture. If Dylan was incapable of doing so ― even while taking advantage of his full six-month window to compose it ― he had the option of turning down the prize. Others, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, have done so in the past. 

Instead, it seems Dylan relied on sloppy shortcuts and the work of others to turn in a musically worded but less than original piece. He’s been accused of outright plagiarism before, but more meaningfully perhaps is that he’s been accused before of creating art that simply echoes or copies others’ work without acknowledging where his originality begins and ends. In 2011, questions were raised about an exhibition of his paintings at Gagosian Gallery, which were presented as “firsthand depictions of people, street scenes, architecture and landscape.” According to The New York Times, some critics pointed out that several of the paintings seemed to be copied from photo, reproducing the work of photographers in paint without altering the framing, perspective or composition.

Dylan typically gets out of these dust-ups easily enough, as scholars and fans are willing to assume that his every move was a conscious artistic choice ― a work of collage or allusion, rather than simply a borrowed piece of work passed off as original. Reading SparkNotes for a work rather than referencing the book itself points to something else, though. Dylan may be a great songwriter, a brilliant artist, and a cultural icon, but his Nobel lecture shows signs of an intellectual laziness that wouldn’t be accepted from a freshman English literature student. What a shame.

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