Arabic literature: what acquiring editors should know

This piece was commissioned and published by BookBrunch, Special issue for the Sharjah Book Fair, November 2014, and re-published by Publishers’ weekly.

In the spring of 2014, Ahmad Saadawi’s book Frankenstein in Baghdad was awarded the International Prize for Arab Fiction, also known as the Arab Booker. It is a novel of a kind quite different from the ones generally acclaimed by the public or by critics, and from those that have come to me for consideration in the past few years. Whatever its originality or flaws, its being awarded the IPAF could be the sign of an interesting change to come.

As I celebrate this fall my tenth year as a literary agent specializing in Arabic literature, I realize I’ve come to have expectations regarding the books I solicit, or those submitted to me. What follows is not meant to reflect all of Arab publishing – rather I’m drawing some conclusions based on my experience.

Not an industry. A notable characteristic of the Arab publishing landscape is that, for better or for worse, it is not an industry. We have no systematic distribution channels, no systematic diffusion, no publicly available sales figures, no real evaluation, relatively little coverage in the media and only a small number of book stores. The infrastructure supporting books in the West is not available in the Arab world. This has many consequences: far fewer books are sold in comparison to the size of the market (some 150 million potential readers). As a result, the nature of production is affected.

We just have books. Although I do use the categories to help international publishers position a book in a landscape to which they are usually totally oblivious, we have no “commercial” books, no “literary”, “up-market commercial”, or “mass-market” books in the sense Western publishers do. What we simply have are books that are either good or bad, both of which have a commercial potential that publishers may or may not be aware of. But books are not really designed to fit in any of these categories. In the absence of systematic marketing, such categories are in any case irrelevant. Either the book sells, or it doesn’t. In most cases, it will sell on its own, sometimes aided by press reviews.

We don’t have content editing. Whether or not, and to what extent, editors should “interfere” in a text is certainly open to discussion, and I don’t mean to take sides. But I have to say that it’s very clear how, in some cases, a book would have benefited from the help of a qualified editor. Publishers I’ve spoken to evoke a number of reasons: “Authors won’t have it” is on top of the list. Content editing requires a relationship of deep trust between authors and editors. Perhaps such a relationship is not possible in the current state of affairs. Also, the lack of any review journals makes it impossible to have shared quality standards. Without such standards, it’s impossible for authors to see the possible benefits of this kind of collaboration. “We have no qualified staff” is another reason. Again, given the relatively modest volume of book sales, the majority of houses are small. It’s possible such structures cannot afford to hire a properly qualified editor. It’s also possible that, with no job prospects, people who might have become good editors shy away from the profession. As a result, acquiring editors frequently find themselves having to do some serious editing on the translation

Our novels are mostly social. I’ve had several publishers approach me looking for “the Arab Harry Potter”, or “the Arab Fifty Shades of Grey”, or any “intimate account”, “urban tale”, “thriller”, “detective story”, “science fiction”, or “noir” book. Certainly, the boundaries of some of these categories are blurry, and some of them overlap, but the conclusion I draw after a decade of extensive reading is that no such genres exist as genres in Arabic. I don’t mean to say that no such books exist. There are science fiction books (see Ada Barbaro’s interview in its English version on Arablit: http://arablit.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/science-fiction-in-arabic-it-was-not-born-all-of-a-sudden/). Some books are built on a detective-like intrigue (Ahmad Murad’s Vertigo is perhaps an example, and, in a historical setting, Najwa Barakat’s Secret Language). Some books are decidedly “urban”, where the city determines the narrative (Rakha’s Crocodiles or Hilal Chouman’s Napolitana and Beirut Limbo). Some books could be categorized as “intimate accounts” (Alawiya Sobh’s It’s called love). Yet, there are no such identifiable trends at large. There are no “authors of” thrillers, etc. Also, most such books seem to only borrow the vocabulary of science fiction, urban tales, detective story, noir, to denounce an aspect of society.

It could be argued that this is the case with all science fiction books. Wasn’t the purpose of Orwell’s 1984 to denounce totalitarianism? Perhaps. But what about Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Such books seem rather to contemplate some aspects of humanity in a more universal sense. Take Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre as another example. Through the intimacy of Mickey Sabbath’s mind, his sexual obsessions, fantasies and adventures, the reader does get a glimpse of a certain American middle-class. But depicting the struggle of the American middle-class is not the purpose of the book. It simply provides the writer with the tools he needs to create a credible character. Beyond Mickey Sabbath’s sexual appetite, there is a reflection on the human condition and death. Of course, there’s a balance in a novel between its different dimensions, but it seems to me that in a vast majority of cases, what drives Arabic literature remains deeply tied to social issues.

If most of our books are ultimately social, it’s in part because there are, unfortunately, many things to denounce: we suffer from injustice, our political systems are in most cases brutal or dysfunctional, our societies in many instances repressive, in transformation or decomposition. Such realities are inevitably on every Arab writer’s mind

New trends? Yet, there are at least two important signs that seem to suggest a few changes to come. The first is the creation in recent years of two publishing companies in Kuwait that produce science fiction and horror. One of them, Nova Plus, is almost exclusively dedicated to it and publishes some 40 titles a year. It could be argued that, with such books, publishing companies are still targeting niche markets, not the mainstream. This is where what we could call “the sign of Frankenstein” comes in. Frankenstein in Baghdad is also a social novel that explicitly denounces the violence in Iraq. It does so through fantastic horror. How interesting that the prestigious Arab Booker was awarded to a novel that is in some parts unambiguously gorey! Thus, gore, with its stylistic attributes, has made it into the publishing establishment. Such trends, if adequately nourished and guided, could mark the emergence of new forms of creativity in Arabic literature. Is it possible that Frankenstein paves the way to a wider variety in Arab publishing? It does at least prove there’s room for more diversity in the mainstream market.

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