Authors vs. Editors: A Dialogue on the Challenges And Beauties of Editing Arabic Literary Works

By Essayed Taha

In 2014, when the late Mourid Barghouti was chair of the panel of judges for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, he used his awards-ceremony speech to read a manifesto about what he saw as wrong with the Arabic publishing landscape. He said, in his comments about publishers:

“But the most important thing is the absence of the literary editor. Publishers in our countries need to appoint an editor who can discuss the manuscript with an author and suggest a primary artistic revision. We are not talking here about a copy editor. An editor intervenes in the techniques, texture, structure, rhythm and dialogue of the novel. He suggests additions and deletions. He alerts the author when the text slips into being an article or thesis. This is an attempt to rescue the work from slipping into bad practice or being flabby or overstated, or writing the ending before its time, or after its time. Thus the novel arrives at its printed form, safe from falling into these traps.”

Barghouti suggested that the role of the editor was something like a safety net—to his mind, insufficiently used—that prevented both writers and publishers from embarrassing themselves. Certainly new editors have come onto the landscape since this speech in 2014. How do contemporary Arab writers and editors see the editor’s role? 

For this special section, we sought out editors and authors to help us explore the state of editing in the Arab publishing industry. Their responses paint a picture of both frustrations and joys.

Publisher and editor Ahmed Saied expressed skepticism about labeling the Arab publishing landscape as an “industry.” Emerging editor Mustafa Eltelwany lamented the absence of experienced mentors and established figures in the field of editing. 

Meanwhile, editors Samar Abou-Zeid and Rana Hayeck shared the satisfaction they derive from witnessing a polished manuscript emerge from their collaborative efforts with authors. 

On the other side of the coin, authors Mahmoud Shukair and Haytham el-Wardany emphasized the author’s right to have the final say in their work. 

The section concludes with insights from Yasser Abdelatif, who wears hats both as an author and an editor.

“Perhaps my favorite part of the job is the author’s gratitude that the editing has made their work the best it can be. The book being well received by the public and the critics is a great joy. And seeing it win a prize doesn’t hurt, either.”

READ: Samar Abou-Zeid: The Best Part of the Job is the Author’s Gratitude

“When I think about Arab names as editors, I can’t mention more than five prominent editors that the younger generations can follow and learn from. This is in contrast to other roles in the literary or creative field, such as prominent translators or writers, where there are more recognizable figures.”

READ: Mostafa Eltelwany: There Aren’t Enough Established Editors To Learn From

“The editor’s responsibility lies in ensuring that the work aligns with the publisher’s editorial standards and navigates the intricate landscape of business, marketing, and distribution in the Arab world. This involves considering various official and social obstacles, prohibitions, and sensitivities that can create a minefield for creative endeavors. Thus, the editor acts as the vital link between the literary text and the commercial aspects of writing.”

READ: Rana Hayeck: A Vital Link Between the Literary and Commercial Aspects of Publishing

“Many [authors] rely heavily on our inherited Arab literary traditions, which emphasize concepts like “inherent creativity” and “inspiration.” They often view any extensive editing of their texts to refine structure, enhance language, remove flaws and redundancies, and shape the development of characters as a direct intrusion, considering it a violation of the creator’s unique creative process, which they see as a solitary endeavor without any external input.”

READ: Ahmed Saied: It’s Easy to Distinguish Between a Book That’s Been Edited and One That Hasn’t

“What editors do not do is impose their opinions on me. Instead, they offer suggestions, and I retain the right to either accept or reject them. This underscores their ethical approach and honest relationship with me as the author.”

READ: Mahmoud Shukair: A Debt of Gratitude to Editors

“The editor’s input is invaluable, as it aids the writer in grasping what might only be sensed intuitively during the writing process.”

READ: Haytham el-Wardany on Why There Are Relatively Few Skilled Editors

“The primary challenge lies in editors and, further down the line, publishers avoiding the pull of commercial marketing trends that dominate many major publishing houses, particularly in the Anglo-American sphere. It’s crucial for them not to adopt editorial policies that stifle the spirit of experimentation and creative exploration.”

READ: Yasser Abdellatif: As Editors, Avoiding the Pull of the Commercial and Trendy