Is It Time to Give Up on Fiction?

Ahdaf Soueif had a short essay in the Guardian this Friday: “In times of crisis, fiction has to take a back seat“. To be fair, we should add that she tweeted “#Guardian title re #fiction far too simple. Not what I say.”

Souief at the World Writers Conference, from @DementedBonxie

During a time of crisis, Soueif writes, the author-citizen is in an impossible position: Engage (and then you can’t write good novels) or escape (and then you aren’t a particularly good citizen). This might be all right if a crisis were to last a tidy 18 days or so, but what if the moment of crisis goes on for…64 years?

Soueif quotes poet Mahmoud Darwish as saying that the writer “has to use the word to resist the military occupation, and has to resist – on behalf of the word – the danger of the banal and the repetitive. How can he achieve literary freedom in such slavish conditions? And how can he preserve the literariness of literature in such brutal times? The questions are difficult.”

Darwish found ways of removing himself from Occupied Palestine, of being halfway in and halfway out. But in Egypt, Soueif writes, (most) authors cannot.

Crises, of course, are not unique to Egypt: Syrian authors like Samar Yazbek and Khaled Khalifa have been consumed by the struggle against the al-Assad regime. Yazbek heroically collected Syrians’ stories and wrote the memoir-journalistic Woman in the Crossfire, trans. Max Weiss; Khalifa has been writing in crisis mode as well. However, Khalifa also said in an interview last year that his latest book project, Parallel Life, “is coming to an end and should be finished within a year at most.” So he has been writing. At least some.

Many other Syrian authors have been approaching this period in other ways.

What I also wonder is: What is a crisis, and how close? Ben Okri apparently said on Friday — the opening day of the World Writers’ Conference in Edinburgh — that 1) first you put out the fire and 2) then you can write about it. Sure enough. You might also get your children out of the burning building. But do you always stay right up against the flame? Hanan al-Shaykh published her beautiful The Story of Zahra in 1980, after having fled Lebanon’s civil war in 1975.

And can someone write a novel about unrequited love if they live in Siwa and not Cairo? If they live in Sixth of October and not Boulaq? Or: Why should a US citizen write a book about his miserable childhood when his country is sending out unmanned killer drones?

According to Alan Gibbons’ blog, Soueif said on the opening day of the World Writers’ Conference that “…a writer in the West can not be compelled to write about the problems of poorer regions of the world. ‘You cannot demand a writer feels the pain of Africa.'”

But can you demand that an author who lives in Sixth of October feel the pain of someone in Boulaq? And…how long is a crisis?

I had always assumed that Naguib Mahfouz had stopped writing for a time, after finishing the Cairo Trilogy, because the events of 1952 and beyond were a “crisis.” However, Mohamed Salmawy recently corrected my impression; Mahfouz had just been worn out by writing the Trilogy, and switched to writing for film for a while.

According to another World Writers’ Conference blogger, Souief asked (rhetorically): “How can you, if your gift is narrative, absent yourself from the great narrative of the world?”

Narratives, I assume she meant.


  1. The question is even more pointed for poetry (Adorno, etc.)
    Should ‘Poetry of Witness’ be given a pass if not excellent besides?
    Turmoil is always with us; so are trees, sky, sea, life and death.

  2. Very good point… perhaps the test is time: if the fiction or the poetry endures, then it has literary value?

  3. It was an interesting article, and a difficult one to comment on if we have not lived through that kind of experience.

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