Creative-writing Culture in the Emirates: Will Money Help or Hurt?

A piece by Ayesha Almazroui in The National says “The UAE is a young country and so it has yet to develop a rich literary heritage to compare with…other countries in the region.” So, she asks: How can it be jump-started? Can it be jump-started?

A recent Banipal featuring Emirati writers.
A recent Banipal featuring Emirati writers.

The first thing Almazroui mentions is the new Emirates Novel Awards. These awards, accounced last month, may well serve to raise the prestige of novel-writing a bit, and will certainly encourage some to try their hand at it. She suggests the contest encourages “a healthy and competitive environment for Emirati writers,” although what this means is certainly up in the air.

Her most sensible, and difficult, suggestion is the call for improvements to the education system. Beyond that, Almazroui suggests:

I think we need a literary fund that can encourage young Emirati talent by providing writers with continued support before and after they finish their books.

Almazroui also suggests the fund help with publishing, distribution, and translation — a rather tall order. But centrally, she is asking for a fund “that provides carefully selected Emirati writers with monthly payments for a certain period of time, to enable them to focus on their vocation.”

She does not mention whether this sponsorship would come with strings attached, or how many.

Almazroui further suggests that the country needs more critics to help sort through the chaff and encourage better writing:

…the country needs more Emirati book critics to critique works of literature objectively and evaluate their quality based on content, style and merit. Critics are as vital for the development of Emirati literature as writers themselves. Some countries have special awards for book critics and reviews.

I agree, of course, that a robust critical commentary about books is necessary to their development, although, in many countries, one must admit that book critics and reviews are being shoved off the end of the pier. She even suggests that critics should be paid (!): “[The fund] could also recruit critics to review their books to help establish a culture of literary criticism.”

Oh, wait, maybe she didn’t mention anything about critics getting paid.

M.A. Orthofer, over at the Literary Saloon, notes that, “Money alone can’t buy a literary culture (or make for good writing), but it probably can’t hurt …..”

It’s possible, though, that money could hurt, if it comes with too many tangling strings. Almazroui suggests that support should be given to books “that represent the socio-cultural character of the UAE.” What would that mean? How rigidly should that be interpreted? To what extent would authors become “government” authors?

Writing, after all, needs breathing space. Some of this can come in the form of relief from financial obligations, but it also needs to come in the form of relief from other obligations, too.

Of course, there are all sorts of financial support:

Mohamed Hashem, head of the acclaimed Egyptian publishing house Dar Merit, recently applauded Gulf investment in Arab books: “The Gulf States, for example, by using their resources and book fairs, can contribute to rescuing the book culture. When I was attending an exhibition in the Gulf, I remember that one Gulf figure purchased one book for AED 3 million. This is excellent, as this will only serve to revive the book industry. The Gulf States can contribute to solving the problems we are facing by investing in culture, provided that freedom of opinion and expression in books is safeguarded and maintained.”