Arabic Literature’s ‘Epic Unwillingness’

I haven’t read Passage 62, just the summary up at Eurozine, but who can resist a phrase like “epic unwillingness,” as applied to the literature of a whole, long-lived, world-spanning language?

But first, we hear:

“Modern Arabic literature make(s) up less than one per cent of all literature translated into French, write the editors of Passage. In Scandinavian countries too, few works have been translated, and what is available reaches a narrow readership.”

All right. Not much Arabic literature in French (or Scandinavian countries). Few readers for it. Got it.

What’s the reason? Basically, Peter Q. Rannes says, Arabic literature is a bit of a bore:

“Peter Q. Rannes argues that modern Arabic prose has been dominated by an “epic unwillingness” – a lack of narrative drive more common in western prose – which explains poor international distribution. In the Arabic countries themselves, literature has been the privilege of an educated elite. But with the success of Alaa al-Aswany’s novel The Yacoubian Building (2007), the best-seller phenomenon has also spread to the Arab world and is indicative of a new popularization of literature, writes Rannes.”

To disrupt the narrative, let’s go backwards:

5) “Indicative of a new popularization of literature, writes Rannes.”

I forget—how are we defining literature? Does poetry count? What about the very popular Million’s Poet show, poetry TV channels, centuries-long poetic traditions? Or are we just looking at the novel, which has coincidentally been at the center of Euro-American literature for the last couple hundred years?

4) “But with the success of Alaa el-Aswany’s…”

Pointing to Alaa el-Aswany as the messiah and savior of Arabic literature never fails to irritate me. Never. Fails. To. Irritate.

3) “literature has been a privilege of the educated elite…”

Most people in Egypt—let’s look at one country instead of, for the moment, trying to grasp the written art of a diverse region—do not have access to literary traditions. Until recently, most people in Egypt were not literate. Plus, books are expensive. True story.

So yep, literature has unfortunately been the province of an educated elite. (Is there some country where “literature” has been the province of the illiterate poor? Just wondering.)

2) “which explains poor international distribution.…”

I’m glad it can be summed up so easily! No sticky issues about cultural difference in artistic forms, audience, the nature of art vs. commerce. It’s all just one thing: bad storytelling. Ph-yew!

1) “an ‘epic unwillingness’ — a lack of narrative drive more common in Western fiction…”

I believe he means the flaws of a certain kind of rarefied Western fiction. Right? Western fiction is still our measuring stick (phew!), but it’s “good” Western fiction that has a strong narrative drive, not the bad stuff.

And “epic unwillingness.” Here, of course, is where I need the specifics.Which books has he read? All of Arabic fiction, I hope?  So I’m arguing against a summary instead of someone’s actual article—unfair.

But in Egyptian fiction, for instance, I believe there are a number of different trends. One seems to be a sort of narrative overdrive: So much story bursts out of the pages that characters are overloaded and the form goes a little wild. (Cairo Swan Song comes to mind.)

But let’s leave Egypt and return to “Arabic literature.”

Many Arab writers and readers complain about the flaws of “Arabic literature.” True story. I could agree that contemporary Arabic novels don’t, generally, have as much “craft” as Euro-American novels (with some very notable exceptions, like Sonallah Ibrahim’s Stealth); I could agree that they don’t, in general, have as much “shape.” I could agree that there often feels like a self-censorship that turns up as blankness in character. I could agree that writing fiction has not become professionalized here, as it has in Europe and America.

“Epic unwillingness”—nope, sorry, I can’t.

I would get the magazine and give this concept a fair shake, but, urm, I don’t read Dansk.

This has already been linked to widely, but, for view of (one aspect of the) translation issue in the U.S.: The Translation Gap: Why More Foreign Writers Aren’t Published in America