At the Abu Dhabi Book Fair this March, one of the sessions (Agents–How They Operate, How to Cooperate) addressed the paucity of Arab literary agents.
According to Chad Post, presenters concluded that:
In order to further promote Arabic literary culture throughout the rest of the world, there needs to be more literary agents representing Arab writers, and there needs to be some sort of translation subvention program in place to support foreign publishers interested in these titles.
I get the translation subvention program (although I cannot like the word “subvention,” which sounds like part of a furnace), but why the agents? Post doesn’t exactly explain, but he does share this anecdote from the talk:
Turkey is a perfect case in point for how this can work. As Lucien Leitess explained, five years Turkey had no literary agents or subvention scheme. Enter Nermin Mollaoglu. In the four years since setting up the Kalem Agency and helping with the implementation of the translation funding program, Nermin has arranged more than 600 rights deals all of the world.
I must say, I really only know the work of Orhan Pamuk, but it’s true that I have seen a number of other Turkish novels popping up here and there. So perhaps he’s right.
But, even though Yasmina Jraissati, of the Beirut-based Raya Agency, seems to love literature wholeheartedly (ahead of dollars), other agents give me the big-bucks shivers.
For instance, Andrew Wylie, also known as “the jackal,” represents a number of key Arab authors, including Ahdaf Souief, Mourid Barghouti, and Alaa al Aswany. In a recent interview with the Guardian, he said:
We put writers and their work on a grid. We have very well-developed computer systems which produce reports by crunching numbers. Contracts. Royalties. Territories. We decide what we want. We discuss it with the client [the author] and then we go out and get it.
The Guardian also said:
After another call from [Al] Gore, he starts to talk about his new-found passion for Alaa al Aswany, the author of The Yacoubian Building and Chicago. Suddenly, he’s excited, almost journalistic. “I went to Egypt. I rang him up. I explained who I was. He invited me to visit him at seven o’clock. We were still talking about his books when we went to dinner just before midnight.” Now Wylie has sold The Yacoubian Building across the world in many editions, and will sell literally every word al Aswany writes to the highest bidder.
This is great for al Aswany, but is it useful for the development of Arab literature? And I know I shouldn’t say anything critical of literary agents in case I might one day want one, but: What of the possible downsides of a (commercially minded) literary agent on every corner?