The New Saudi Novel (Again): Rebellious Pamphlet or Artistic Revolution?

Saudi writer Abdo Khal and the not-particularly-sexy cover of his Arabic Booker-winning She Throws Sparks

Yesterday, the AFP published a new look at shifts in the Saudi literary landscape. Yes, we know that Saudi novels of the last five years are talking about sex and money in shockingly frank ways. Yes, we know that many Gulf literary critics and writers—including celebrated Kuwaiti writer Laila Othman—have decried the ‘tyranny of sex’ in the new Saudi novel.

The AFP gave plot synopses of a number of these new novels, and asked prominent Saudi authors what they think about the “new” Saudi novel.

Controversial Saudi woman writer Badriya al-Bishr:

There is a new generation of novelists that uses a new language, simple and direct, in dealing with subjects that were not evoked in the past, like the right of a woman to be in love or to work.

Bishr’s latest novel, The Swing, tells the stories of three Saudi women in Europe.

Umaima al-Khamis, who was longlisted for the Arabic Booker for her novel al-Wafah, was not as excited as the others about the art and craft of the new Saudi novel. Al-Khamis:

Many young people are attracted to novels to express their views and ambitions. This could have a negative impact on the artistic quality of the novel, as it turns into a rebellious social pamphlet that aims at most to break stereotypes and uncover what is hidden.

But Abdo Khal, who won this year’s Arabic Booker for his novel She Throws Sparks, told the AFP that a novel is a “work of art and not an editorial or a political pamphlet.”

He added: “At the same time, art has accompanied all revolutions and reforms.”

I’m looking forward to having another go at Khal’s She Throws Sparks; the opening excerpt that came out when he won the Arabic Booker was rather uninspiring. But perhaps I’m just a raging nationalist who can’t stand to see non-Egyptians take home literary prizes; who knows.