Is Choosing the International Prize for Arabic Fiction Winner Just a Matter of ‘Pure Taste’?

According to Ahram Online’s Mary Mourad, one of the 2013 Cairo Book Fair’s most heated discussions was over this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) shortlist:

IPAF-2013-shortlist-website-hompageThis year’s shortlist, after all, came as quite a surprise — leaving off acclaimed books by novelists such as Hoda Barakat, Elias Khoury, Rabee Jaber, Muhsin al-Ramli, and Waciny Laredj while forwarding several books that could be characterized as more “readable” than experimental. At this year’s Cairo Book Fair, IPAF administrator Fleur Montanaro, judging chair Galal Amin, and shortlisted author Ibrahim Eissa were at a panel to discuss the prize.

In defending his shortlist choices, economist and author Galal Amin said, in Mourad’s words:

“It is difficult to pin down scientific criteria to judge literature and, therefore, it is left to pure taste, Amin says. Since ‘taste’ cannot be judged, he expected that people understand that the committee’s choices are simply the result of these individuals’ personal taste.”

The bold on “pure taste” is mine. After all, by these lights, E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey should be just as likely to win a literary prize as Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending; it’s all left to the individual judges’ preferences (some critics may prefer cold McDonald’s french fries, some delicately stuffed waraq’ 3ynab).

But Amin wasn’t steering the ship completely without criteria. He told the assembled that he guided his choices by six flags: “[1] talented storytelling; [2] consistency in structure; [3] tasteful language; [4] novelty; [5] limitation in content related to sex, religion and politics and, finally, [6] that it has a message to deliver.”

It is certainly true what Amin said, that “even big writers have published works that are not very good,” and yes, there is no reason to forward Elias Khoury, Rabee Jaber, and Hoda Barakat merely because they are significant authors who have written beautiful books. The IPAF is a book prize, not an author prize. Yet, throughout Arab history, writers have created wonderful works that were not altogether “consistent” in structure, nor “tasteful” in language, nor “limited” in their sexual, religious, and political content.

Many of Elias Khoury’s structures could be considered (beautifully) inconsistent; it could be said that Sonallah Ibrahim (That Smell) and Mohammad Choukri (For Bread Alone) used language that wasn’t tasteful; and surely Hoda Barakat, Muhsin al-Ramli, and Rabee Jaber have all, in some way, gone over their limits on sexual, religious, and/or political content. Let me throw Elias Khoury’s brilliant Yalo into that “too much content” bucket as well.

Author Ibrahim Eissa rightly remarked that there is a limited space for criticism in the Arabic press, and an over-emphasis on literary works (he called them dull works for the brooding, dark, moody reader, but never mind that). Why shouldn’t there be more time and ink devoted to the best of crime-writing, “mood-boosting” novels, self-help, romances, science fiction, children’s books, and more? 

It is a shame that these debates should cast any sort of shadow over the works on this year’s IPAF shortlist. But the debates are nonetheless important. What makes great literature is not important just to the narrow categories of book-lovers and writers, but to all society. How do we shape our stories? What is a great story? What elements matter when a story is told? Story-telling criteria shape not just literature, but our views of history and society.

I doubt that Galal Amin is on point, blaming the furor over this year’s shortlist on “jealousy” and claiming that “writers are less able to control their feelings than others.” The English Booker also continues to hear similar debates over “quality vs. readability” and on what can and should be valued in a literary work. Long may these debates continue.


  1. I find this whole post to echo the kind of elitism (the 50 shades of gray and McDonalds references point to that elitism quite clearly) that I think keeps Arabic literature from appealing to either Arab or international readers. The assumption that “experimental” books should be privileged over readability is itself problematic, especially for the Booker whose major goal is to bring to international prominence a work of Arabic fiction. Choosing only stodgy, “dull works for the brooding, dark, moody reader” (which as a reader of Arabic fiction actually strikes me as a rather fair description honestly) means that these works are unlikely to appeal outside of a particular circle. The impression I get of the Arabic literary scene is of a small circle of author-critics writing for each other (and for western critics), and not for a wider audience, and I imagine that this plays into the general apathy towards reading in the Arab world. Within the group of people who do translate Arabic literature to English, you again have literary critics whose criteria for good literature is often it’s ability to be analyzed according to dominant literary criticism tropes (I think for example that Season of Migration to the North owes its popularity less to the quality of the work per se as much as to its perfect fit into the modern critical frameworks of “post-colonialism.”)

    Personally, I have a really hard time thinking of books translated from Arabic that I’d recommend to friends and family. They often are either simply boring, too introspective, too interested in showing off for literary critics, and above all missing a compelling narrative – many books I’ve read feel more like essays in novel form (indeed, I notice no critique above of the criteria that they have a “message” which is often one of the things that makes these novels painfully didactic.) There are exceptions – the Cairo trilogy, for example – but we find, for example, the translator interviewed here the other day who’s far more interested in translating Rabee Jaber’s more esoteric works, instead of his solidly narrative works that could find a much wider readership in English.

    1. S,

      We’ll leave aside whether elitism is the right word (I think fuul & koshary are perfectly wonderful, but mass-market McDonald’s, no) and move on to the central questions.

      As I note above, there IS a big neglect of fun works in Arabic. Yes, yes, a hundred times yes. I agree with Ibrahim Eissa about that, as I said, a hundred times over. I laughed at “Ayza Atgowaz,” and I like the fun novels of Jurji Zaydan and I like to enjoy myself when I read. Why not?

      I agree that there isn’t enough fun literature translated, and I think BQFP is one of the few translators that goes in for not-strictly-literary books, although U of Texas Press has, and AUCP does on occasion.

      I also don’t think there is ultimately a real divide between “quality and readability” (

      I really mean what I say when I suggest: Long may these debates continue. We *should* talk about what we mean by good and great literature. Should it be literature with “limited sexual, political, and religious content” and “tasteful language”? I’d say Galal Amin is off the mark here. But should it be literature that can reach in and move us, that reaches the audience where they’re at? Yes.

      The great W.G. Sebald said (apparently, according to his students): “By all means be experimental, but let the reader be part of the experiment.”

      I happen to love experimental writing (when I’m part of the experiment), but I also agree that more fun & accessible works should be promoted & translated, and one of the great weaknesses of literary translation is that the publishers who are interested — by and large — are interested only in a certain sort of book.

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