Over at The Kenyon Review, I’ll be writing weekly about the world beyond Arab and Arabic literature (if one indeed exists). This week, I write about the present and future of serializing novels. It wasn’t entirely Arab-lit free (although I tried). How could I write about serializing without including the thoughts of Egyptian serializer Ezzedine Choukri Fishere? The longer Q&A:
ArabLit: What initially made you decide to serialize? Have you heard of other contemporary writers doing it?
Ezzedine Choukri Fishere: Madness, simply. I wanted so much to write and publish immediately; it was an irresistible urge, almost physical. I didn’t know others had done it before. I thought the novels that were published in segments, like those of Naguib Mahfouz and Ihsan AbdelQoddos, were ready and complete at the start of the publication date. But when I suggested the idea to the editor-in-chief of Tahrir newspaper he told me that these were actually written while being published. The only difference is, the big difference is, these were weekly segments. Now, with the current pace, there is no room for weekly segments, he said: if you want to, it has to be daily! I took the challenge. And for 75 days I did nothing but write, rewrite, edit, revise, and write again. I was living inside the novel. It was exhilarating. I loved it, every bit of it.
AL: Did it force any particular aesthetic on your writing? With Jurji Zaidan, we could say cliffhanger chapter endings and tidy, self-contained chapters. For you?
ECF: Yes and no. The segments had to be of comparable size: 1200-1600 words. But I didn’t go for either self-contained or cliffhangers. The former wouldn’t make sense in the case of a long letter from father to son. The latter is cheap: you can’t have cliffhangers every day except in cheap soap-operas, and I certainly don’t want that!
AL: Audience feedback apparently shaped Dickens’ work, and the work of some graphic novelists who serialize. Did you find your audience feedback — during the writing process — ultimately helpful or constraining? Or both?
ECF: I like that you mention Dickens and my name in one sentence — I would like to say: yes, Dickens and I benefited from readers’ reactions to ‘our’ work. Yes, I found the comments useful. And unlike Dickens I didn’t have to go sit in cafes and eavesdrop to get the comments. They were right here; every day, every hour. I read them and paid attention. They showed me when the readers were tired or bored, when the despair was getting too strong, when the bloodshed was overflowing, when they needed a break, a breath of hope or kindness. And I talked to them, in the novel: there are parts where the father would ask his son not to lose hope, not to be too hasty in his judgment, not to jump to conclusions, to pardon him, to be patient, etc. These were requests to the reader. I also had to tune down some of the violence, and to skip some of the events that I had initially planned. Because I saw the readers were already tired and needed to move to something else. I loved the comments, most of them, and they were my companion throughout the writing process. And I acknowledged their companionship in the published version.
AL: Do you think it brought in new readers who will now more willingly engage in long-form fiction?
ECF: I would like to think so. Many of the readers who left comments were regular Tahrir newspaper readers, those who look for news not literature. Some of them are readers who followed my daily opinion pieces in Tahrir, published few months earlier, and they came to ‘see’ what was that. Then they got hooked, and am very pleased with that. I don’t know for sure what they will read next, but I suspect they might venture and ‘read around’, see what other novelists are writing. I hope they will.