The literary prize season is almost upon us - but is it really possible to compare books? And can this kind of success be a mixed blessing on a writer's career?
Recognition of young writers is no guarantee of success
In less than a month, the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) will be announced in Abu Dhabi on April 23. This year's shortlist for the prestigious literary prize, which is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation in London and by the Tourism and Culture Authority in Abu Dhabi, features works by six authors - Sinan Antoon, Jana Elhassan, Mohammed Hasan Alwan, Ibrahim Issa, Saud Alsanousi and Hussein Al-Wad - from six different nations.
IPAF acts as both a curtain-raiser for the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF) and marks, to a lesser degree, the opening of the extended awards season across the globe: the longlist for this year's Man Booker will be announced on July 23, the longlist for the Women's Prize for Fiction (previously the Orange Prize for Fiction) has already been revealed and features Gillian Flynn, Sheila Heti, Barbara Kingsolver, Hilary Mantel and G Willow Wilson's so-called "Arab Spring novel" Alif the Unseen, among others. Meanwhile, the winners of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, presented each year to writers, intellectuals and young authors in the Arab world, will also be announced next month.
In each case, the judges have their work cut out. Quantifying and valuing literature and then ordering those works under consideration as winners and losers is an almost impossible job. What makes one book better than another? Is it fair to compare one with another in the first place? Will a book maintain its lustre long after the hype associated with its publication has faded? In short, will it remain better than the rest?
Sons of Gebelawi has undergone that journey in reverse, recently gathering some richly deserved, but belated praise. Originally published in 2009, Ibrahim Farghali's novel of pre-revolutionary Egypt picked up the Sawiris Senior Fiction Prize last month and The National is delighted to publish an extract from this intriguing book today.
Born in 1967, Farghali was part of the Nineties Generation of writers, although his age would keep him out of the Beirut39 list in 2009. Compiled by Banipal, the journal of modern Arabic literature in translation, the British Council and the Hay Festival, Beirut39 sought to assemble a definitive list of 39 young Arab writers of note, all of them under 40 years of age, as the previous decade drew its final breaths.
Some have since flourished spectacularly: Joumana Haddad published her latest controversial work Superman is an Arab last year to much hullabaloo, while Rabee Jaber picked up the 2012 IPAF crown and Samar Yazbek's moving memoir A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, has won universal acclaim since its publication. (Yazbek will talk about her book and her experiences at the ADIBF next month, in what is sure to be one of the event's "must-see" discussions.)
But such lists also tread a fine line in occasionally overstating the importance of those names they gather. A generation ago, in the America of Ronald Reagan, a cadre of talented young writers sprang forth and were dubbed "the literary Brat Pack".
The pack, such as it was, essentially involved three authors - Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz - who drew widespread praise for chronicling the lives of the young, wasted and disaffected MTV-watching generation.
The trio also earned comparisons with the brightest lights of the American literary landscape, notably F Scott Fitzgerald, but who really remembers Easton Ellis for anything beyond American Psycho (1991), his third novel, or McInerney for Brightness Falls (1992), his fourth, or Janowitz for Slaves of New York (1986), her collection of short stories that followed her well-received debut, American Dad? All three remain productive to this day, but are they as powerful and enduring as that billing thought they would be? History will out, but there are pitfalls in too strongly feting the young before they have assembled a greater body of work.
* Nick March