Arab Novels: Not as Good as the Russians, Latin Americans?

I continue to troll, backwards and forwards, through the preview Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) report on Arabic/Hebrew/Turkish translation (1990-2010), written by Alice Guthrie and others and set to be published May 2.

Here, a short quote from translator Anthony Calderbank:

I have heard people say that they don’t like Arab novels, they’re sentimental, immature, poorly crafted, have weak character development. Others tell me ‘that wasn’t bad’ or ‘I quite liked that.’ I have rarely found anyone who has raved and raved about an Arab novel or an Arab novel that has reached the heights of the Russians or the Latin Americans.

He and I must not run in the same circles, as I do know people who’ve been blown away by Elias Khoury, Hanan al-Shaykh, Naguib Mahfouz, Mourid Barghouti, Sonallah Ibrahim, Ghassan Kanafani, Tayeb Salih, Ibrahim al-Koni, Abdul Rahman Munif. Last year’s summer challenge list, in which translators, authors, and publishers note  “five Arabic books to read before you die,” should include at least one that will blow you away.

And Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis will easily blow you away, although Calderbank makes no mention of poetry.

In defense of Calderbank’s friends, censorship and self-censorship have been stumbling blocks in the mass-flowering of Arabic fiction, and some poor translations have also hobbled the “rave and rave” factor.

You? Do you find that people “rave and rave” about an Arabic novel? Or do your friends mostly say “that wasn’t bad”?