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Turn the page: Two decades of publishing Arabic literature

Personal experience leaves Youssef Rakha feeling old

Youssef Rakha , Sunday 20 Dec 2020
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There was once a time in Cairo when the word “bestseller” was an unequivocal slur. Awards were for old establishment figures long coopted by the regime. And no one had ever heard of a shortlist, a blurb or a book launch. Say what you will about Mubarak’s middle years. Literature was literature and nobody argued otherwise. Good writing had integrity. It didn’t sell because it wasn’t meant to.

I was 22 when my first book came out in 1999, at the tail end of that time. And I’d be lying if I said it feels like yesterday, but it definitely does not feel like a wholly distinct era. It was. For one thing the belief was widespread and deep-rooted that true literature could make no room for profit. A legacy of state control had instilled an aversion to the free market. But maybe that was older: in unrelated contexts, “commerce” implied something dishonest and despicable. There was also a longing for the people’s — for which read the state’s, for which read the patriarch’s — assent. Quixotic attitudes about the Word’s inherent sanctity saw the writer as the model ideologue. A wisdom-dispensing and eternally commerce-proof prophet. Beyond all material need.

In 1999 there was practically only one literary press in the city. It wasn’t a vanity publisher, but it relied on author contributions to shoulder the costs of administration and printing. It was a godsend. For decades literature had been the preserve of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Culture was in literary decline. Writers waited their turn literally for years before their books could appear to resounding silence in dirt-cheap but never-available editions. Those piled up unsold at outlets that looked more and more un-sexily Soviet, only ever to be read by other writers expecting to have their backs scratched in turn.

The new press put out reasonably priced paperbacks you could see in private-sector bookshops. They looked and felt like hope. Some of the work was groundbreaking. Some of the writers would go on to make names for themselves. Still nothing ever sold. The only lucrative fiction being published at the time were the pulp series of genre novels: Nabil Farouk’s The Man of the Impossible (1984-2009), for example, or Ahmed Khaled Tewfik’s Paranormal (1992-2014). No one pretended there was anything un-slur-worthy about those. They did not belong with fiction and poetry so much as the things that did sell: graphic titles on religion and sex catering to fanatical and priggish impulses with varying degrees of sophistication.

Mid-century writers could still become household names. And, even when they didn’t, journalist-authors like Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharqawi (1921-1987) or Fathi Ghanem (1924-1999) remained eminently employable public figures. It’s true they were published if not by the state then by equally bureaucratic enterprises, but those at least appeared to be economically viable. When my first book came out, by contrast, the writer was by and large an obscure office worker on a totally lustreless career path. Even as spokespeople for the state, writers had seen better days.

After the turn of the millennium, commercial publishers like Dar Al-Shorouk would finally take up contemporary literature again. A handful of mostly very bad writers began to produce the same prurient, preaching fare but in the guise of contemporary novels. And, not wanting to be pessimistic about it, even great figures like Sonalla Ibrahim hailed the success of those as a harbinger of the literary dawn. Oil-rich institutions were introducing award initiatives like the so-called Arabic Booker. Which was supposed to bring the best Arab writing to the West but only created a market for some of the worst in and around the Gulf. By the time the Arab Spring broke out, “bestseller” was high praise.

And look what a baboon fight the Arab literary scene has become in the meantime. The cliques, the campaigns, the status-update clashes. The compulsive self-promotion. Behold the sheer desperation with which people scuffle over a prize or after a translation opportunity. And the way they’ll adopt a political cause just to garner its champions’ sympathy. Or voice an opinion not because they actually have it but because it might raise their social media follower count. The irony being that, notwithstanding the hype and hypomania, 20 years of late capitalism have changed nothing. When even a moderately good book sells, and it won’t sell nearly as well as a bad book no matter what you do, it does because its author happens to be popular on Facebook. Or maybe it has won a prize or managed to ride a Twitter storm triumphantly. Anything at all apart from literary substance.

Not that I’d ever recommend a return to state control. But since the capitalist conundrum sneaked up on Cairo, retrospection has lent weight to the belief that literature and profit don’t go together. That, at least where writing is concerned, there is something seedy and sinister about commerce. You can use the paraphernalia of consumerism to make it all look sexy: the glamorous events, the coffee machines, all that talk of submissions and contracts. But the truth is that unless something can be made to sell, it will remain more or less invisible in the grander scheme of things. And no matter how ugly or petty, if it sells a thing will be thrust in your face everywhere you go.

Being a writer — and please don’t think for a moment that I’m in any way immune to the baboon fight — I feel there is an important lesson here. The more commerce there is in literature, the less literary dignity there can be. In the end writing that dares to call itself literature cannot pander to a customer base any more than it can serve as regime propaganda. And whether it takes the form of an advertising campaign or a government subsidy, there can be no doubt that publishing literature requires patronage.

There was once a time in Cairo when one obscure but brilliant writer would phone another in the middle of the night to read a just-completed passage they were particularly happy with into the landline receiver. And the genuine delight they could hear at the other end of the line confirming their sense that they had created something beautiful was all the reward they required. Now can someone please tell me, what on earth was wrong with that time?

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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