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.