Tilting at Straw Men; or, Upsetting the Apple Cart Before the Horse
As others who are much more knowledgeable about Arabic literature than us have already pointed out, a big chunk of the current issue of literary journal Public Spaces is devoted to young Egyptian writers. One thing we pondered while reading the lead article, which is the only content available online, is the interest in placing writers into distinct “generations” (not least by writers themselves, it seems) and the perceived need to frame the discussion politically. Not having the vocabularial fortitude to read Arabic literature in its native language, we’re ill-suited to analyze the issue (or even moreso than we usually are, as it were). But in the spirit of Einstein, we’ll do so anyway, if only as a means of taking a couple of our hobbyhorses for a stroll around the corral, and in hopes of gaining a larger audience for the journal and its featured authors in the days and years to come.
“Age Ain’t Nothin But a Number”
Even if it may have been based on self-serving R. Kelly propaganda, there is some truth to Aaliyah’s pronouncement. As such, we find the general tendency to group together novelists/poets/bellelettrists into generations unnecessary, because it tends to obscure rather than enlighten, and to overly ascribe stylistic similarities to accidents of birth. Far better, in our opinions, to group similar writers by “schools” of literature, which at least contains descriptive content, and allows for cross-generational stylistic affinities to be recognized.
Another thing that annoys us about the generational dialectic is its imprecision. When does a new generation start and the previous one end? Do new generations happen faster in places like Egypt where the fertility rate is higher than in Europe or the US? Aren’t generations just a construct to hate on (“the enormous self-regard of the baby boom generation”) or celebrate (“The Greatest Generation”) your elders or younger cohorts?
Aside from our misgivings about generations, we had mixed feelings about using the disappearance/moribundity of a political movement to bracket (or open the parentheses on) the new generation, regardless of the political activities or lack thereof of some or even all members of said generation. With occasional bright spots, politics is among the most stultifyingly boring aspects of Egyptian culture, in which very little of consequence ever happens. Yet it receives the vast majority of coverage in English.
TBE is obviously not immune, even if in our salad days we attempted to eschew politics. But believe us when we write that we’d rather read almost anything about Arabic literature than another story/blogpost about succession, and it is only with a deep and abiding self-loathing that we carry on with the latter. By our count there are a few reasons for politics’ competitive advantage in garnering interest: First, politics is a universal language, in a way that untranslated literature (and music, to a lesser extent) are for obvious reasons not. The barriers to entry in the political commentary market are very low, and consequently the quality of analysis, even in prestige news outlets, is often found lacking. Second, the raison d’étudier for many people, particularly Americans of the post-September 11th generation, is politics. (Here is a place where a generational framework is useful, because there is a distinction between (many of) those who studied Middle East topics before 9/11 and (many of) those whose interest was catalyzed by the event itself or in the post- era.) Third, there is no third yet.
If politics is seen as Arabic literature’s only entrée into the politics-addled minds of the masses, we’re all for it. At the same time we believe the literature itself is transcending politics, insofar as that’s possible. People whose reading, enjoyment and analysis of literature is based on the degree to which it “sticks it to the man” or takes some other political position are boring. It’s the same impulse that makes a lot of discourse about hip hop revolve around Public Enemy, as though they were the apotheosis of the art form just because they were explicitly political, and so comprehensible in a pre-existing framework, whereas a lot of other hip hop upset notions of how an oppressed minority should act, and so was de-valorized or even despised for not living up to expectations. That shouldn’t happen to the oppressed majority in Egypt.
(We are not saying that this is what is happening in the essay at hand. It is not. Only that using politics as a framing device, even while stating that “…the big pronouncements here are more muted or ironic…and sometimes they are even refused,” tends to create expectations around a body of work that might not be helpful, in contributing to the reductio ad politicum of a culture and literature that is, like all cultures or literatures, far more interesting than the sum of its political parts. )
(Furthermore, we understand that politics affects everything, even if very few people affect politics. The point is not to establish, or pretend the existence of, some cultural sphere unconnected to politics. Instead we would like to see literature approached and appreciated (or not) based on criteria that extend beyond the political sympathies of its authors, even if those sentiments are apathetic. Based on the limited evidence we’ve seen, the stylistic differences between, say, Naguib Mahfouz and some member of the younger generation are at least as great as their respective contributions (or not) to a political project, and are certainly just as interesting, so why adopt the political rather than the stylistic frame?)
Markets in Everything!
We’re fairly certain there is a market for a less politics-centric approach. As one TBE correspondent (in both senses of the word) put it to us in a recent email (reprinted here without permission), “…the ins and outs of regional politics bore me unless they are primarily the backdrop to lascivious family/romantic drama or adventures in baking.” Another of our frequent interlocutors recently made the same point in a somewhat different context. Our style manual, TBE’s Rules for Journalism, states, “the plural of anecdote is, in fact, evidence, despite evidence to the contrary.” And, “One is an aberration, two’s a trend.” So we’re quite obviously on to something here.
Let a thousand Arabic literature/cinema/music blogs bloom!