Egyptian writer and novelist Mansoura Ez Eldin published her first collection of short stories, Flickering Light, in 2001:
This collection was followed by several award-winning novels: Maryam’s Maze in 2004 (translated to English by Paul Starkey), Beyond Paradise in 2009 (shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction), and Emerald Mountain in 2014 (winner of the Best Arabic Novel award at that year’s Sharjah International Book Fair).
In 2009, she was selected for the Beirut39, a list of the 39 best Arab authors under 40. Her 2013 collection of short stories, The Path to Madness, took the short-story prize at the 2014 Cairo International Book Fair 2014. Her acclaimed 2017 Shadow Specters takes place between Cairo and Prague, and her 2018 short-story collection, A Haven for Absence, was on the five-book Almultaqa Prize shortlist.
Ez Eldin is also co-editor of Akhbar al-Adab literary magazine.
It is in all those personas — as short-story writer, novelist, journalist, and critic — that she talks to us about the changing role of literary criticism and the literary critic.
Why is literary criticism important? (Is it important?) What is literary criticism? How does it join the literary conversation?
Mansoura Ez Eldin: In an ideal world, literary criticism is very important, no less important than creative writing. For myself, the critical models I prefer are those that can be described as a parallel creativity, naturally relevant to the creative work they reference, but that are also stand-alone texts that we can enjoy reading entirely separate from the work around which they are built. This is different from quickie reviews of books in literary newspapers and magazines. The importance of criticism, when it’s impartial, is its ability to fairly address those voices that are marginalized by prevailing tastes or dominant literary trends, those that fall beyond the list established by the tastemakers of the literary scene. Also criticism’s ability to follow new phenomena in writing, to theorize about them and shed light on them—although if criticism’s integrity is lost, or if criticism is turned to support and flatter the popular, then it does more harm than good. I think the importance of criticism is increasing writers’ creativity at the beginning, when they are in need of encouragement and seeking a foothold, and critical recognition from influential writers can be a great support to them.
At the beginning of my literary career in Egypt, in the late 1990s, criticism was still very important. At the time, literary publishing industrywas small, and, for the most part, it relied on avant-garde and often elitist publishers. Sales weren’t taken into account in assessing a literary work; for a work to be considered successful, it was enough that major critics paid tribute to it. Over the years, things changed. The distribution of literature changed with the proliferation of modern bookshops and the emergence of large, profit-focused publishing houses post-2002, and then the phenomenon of the bestseller arrived and became the most important criterion for judging the success of a book.
Reading has increased, and publishing has flourished in quantitative terms, but this has come at the expense of professional standards. And in the midst of these changes, the role of the critic has gradually disappeared, particularly as there are many among writers who are looking only for advertising, marketing, and distribution—not for criticism.
Criticism has been marginalized even more with the increasing strength of social media, such that it is almost absent from the literary scene; it’s true that there are still a number of writers who are keen to continue critical writing, but it’s no longer as influential as it once was, and broader segments of the reading public are choosing what they read on the basis of literary awards and comments on social media sites, or ratings on GoodReads and other sites, and to a lesser degree by quickie reviews in literary newspapers and magazines.
This has resulted in new phenomena, such as the keenness of some publishers to publish those who have a large number of followers on social media, even if they have nothing to do with writing, as well as the interests of those who are influential on social media, more so than the views of critics.
What are the strengths and shortcomings of literary criticism in Arabic?
MEE: Among the advantages that I’ve noticed, particularly among young academics, is an interest in contemporary works, including works by young authors, in their academic writings and studies (MAs and PhDs). At least this happens with novels—contemporary poetry doesn’t enjoy this privilege in some universities.
This support for contemporary literary works by universities is a positive thing, although, from another point of view, criticism may have withdrawn behind the walls of academia and declined outside, particularly as some academics who were writing criticism for wider audiences have stopped doing this. Others have moved into cultural criticism. I can’t blame those who have moved away from pursuing this work; in most cases, material compensation is minimal.
It’s also positive that some daily newspapers carry critical essays by important critics, and not just quickie reviews in their book sections.
On the other hand, the biggest shortcoming is the prevalence of pleasantries, with many not daring to seriously criticize a work; in many cases, a work is not considered apart from the author’s fame and the importance of their previous work. Flattery is a widespread phenomenon, and most orient themselves to this instead of reading critically and analytically.
At a certain period, there was a sort of patriarchal guardianship, particularly from male critics toward women’s writing. During the ‘90s, for example, with the emergence of a number of new writers, new expressions appeared, such as “the season of girls’ writing,” and others, as if we were looking at the work of daughters, not writers, and required the presence of parents in order to assess this work. There was also a tendency to put all women’s writing in one basket, as if all were writing one text, as if “women’s writing” represented only one branch of the river of public writing.
But to be fair, that last point is not limited to criticism alone, but extends to many writers and journalists who surrounded writing by women with stereotypes and stock phrases, even before they had read the text itself. It’s striking that some women also embrace and participate in this mainstream of patriarchal thought.
Whose opinions do you read among literary critics? Why do you read them? The beauty of the language, because you trust their opinions, something else?
MEE: I will begin by answering the last part of your question; that is, the why. I enjoy written criticism that is close to a parallel creative text, a self-contained piece of writing engaged by linguistic features and internal structure, without which I would not expect it be able to analyze a creative text and reveal its aesthetic qualities, nor to have the necessary degree of integrity and objectivity.
The names of those who I’ve been interested in reading have changed, from one stage to another, since the beginning of my relationship with literature, but I can’t forget that I’ve gotten to know a large number of important books and required readings through the critic Mohammed Badawi, which happened before I knew him personally, and even before I came to Cairo. But Dr. Badawi has been writing less of late, unfortunately, as is the case with Dr. Hussein Hamouda and Dr. Khairy Douma.
I’ve recently become acquainted with the Tunisian critic Abdel Dayem El-Salami, and what mainly drew my attention to his writing was his knowledge of contemporary schools of critical thought, and his great knowledge of classical Arabic literatures, and also his rich and graceful language, although before that it’s his vision of the Arabic literary scene as reflected in his book, The Churches of Criticism.
Apart from this, I often choose my own readings, or base them on discussions with close friends, in whose tastes I am confident.
If you had a large budget, and no constraints, to start your own literary magazine, what would you include in it? Which writers, which topics, what else?
MEE: In this case, I’d focus on experimental and avant-garde writing, as most current literary journals are more concerned with conventional writing that is antithetical to experiment and doesn’t leave the mainstream (except with acclaimed writers) and it would be refreshing to change this as much as I could. I’d also make sure that the magazine was something of a bridge, or an interface, between different literary genres, and between literature and other arts—such as cinema, music, and visual arts—and between so-called high literature and philosophy and pop art in its various manifestations.
And, since I’ve used the metaphor of the “bridge,” translation must play an important role in this proposed magazine, yet by focusing on languages and cultures that are not usually the focus of Arab publishing houses, and by focusing on those important writers who’ve been ignored by the publishers who chase names that are guaranteed success or have won famous prizes.
Do you listen to literary podcasts, watch TV about books? Or do you think the most interesting work is in print?
MEE: Print work is my foundation, but, besides this, I’ve recently started to listen to literary and cultural podcasts, such as “Then Sultan’s Seal” and “Finjaan,” and I love what’s spontaneous and intimate in these discussions. Written interviews are often more thought-provoking, edited, and polished, which makes them more able to clarify ideas, but, by contrast, podcasts give the audience a better chance of stepping into the author’s unmediated, uncensored mind.
As for TV, I’ve stopped watching it completely since 2013, because of the widespread propaganda on Egyptian channels, which spread to a complete boycott of all TV channels, although I’ve replaced this by following up on the cultural programming I want to see on YouTube. I particularly enjoy watching old conversations with now-deceased writers and poets, and verse drama that starred actors from the Golden Age of Egyptian theatre. For example, I was delighted recently when I turned up a recordingof the play The Tragedy of al-Hallaj by the great poet Salah Abdel Sabour (1931-1981), directed by the novelist Bahaa Taher while he was working on The Cultural Program; the role of al-Hallaj was played by Mahmoud Morsi (1923-2004).