This article was commissioned by Bookbrunch  for the Sharjah International Book Fair, November 2012.
This is the unabridged version.
When asked about the challenges of selling world translation rights of Arabic fiction, one’s first response is naturally always focused on the potential acquirers. It is a fact that Arabic is not widely read in the international publishing industry, and this indubitably has consequences on the access non-Arab publishers have to Arabic literature. There also are other deeper factors that have to do with the relationship each individual editor may have with what he believes to be the ‘Arab world’. Distance naturally plays a role. A French editor for example, is more likely to make a difference between North-Africa, Egypt, the Middle-East and the Gulf. A Korean editor, is more likely to put all of these in a bundle – and add Iran and Afghanistan on top. This is only human, and it wouldn’t be any more surprising if an Arab editor didn’t truly make the difference between the various Scandinavian countries, for example.
However, the added difficulty comes with the heavy connotations the notion of ‘Arab world’ is loaded with. There are layers of connotations. Some inherited from past colonial ties, others from tales that feed an everlasting ‘orientalist’ vision of this part of the world, and others still directly linked with contemporary history, politics and media. The ‘Arab world’ is both very familiar, but also unknown to most people. At each meeting with an editor, as a literary agent, I am naturally confronted to various stereotypes. And stereotypes have a hindering effect. They influence rights acquisition because they shape editors’ expectations, both positively and negatively. By positive expectations, I mean expectations that fit the stereotype. ‘We want stories by women’, is most probably the expression of an underlying positive stereotype. The interest in female authors unfortunately more often than not stems from the preconceived idea one has about Arab women in the West. What is sought is a ‘feminine voice’ – understand women telling stories of abuse, or of struggle for freedom and equality, etc., from their perspective. By negative expectation, I mean expectations that contradict the stereotype. If the expectation positively shaped by stereotypes is of women being abused, and of a conservative society, the negative expectation in this context is of stories featuring empowered women, and an overwhelming presence of sex. This dichotomy distorts the perception of Arab books. Take a novel depicting in detail the mechanisms of crimes of honor. It may be a well-written, smartly structured book, and play an important role in Arab societies, in the sense that it raises awareness and denounces brutal injustice. In the rights acquirer’s positive/negative prism just depicted, it is either a great book, because it sensationally feeds the stereotype one already has; or it is a terrible book because it is seen as riding on the stereotype, and not offering anything new. The complexity of the book’s meaning escapes the dichotomy, and the book is consequently not judged for its own value. Another case is that of a book that does not fit anywhere in the positive/negative expectations scheme. Take a modern urban tale, for instance. Such a book is often considered an interesting read, but not interesting enough to be acquired. Although it does tell something different in the acquirer’s perspective, either this is not the difference that editors think their readers seek (based on negative expectations), or the book is too universal, and the magic of foreign literature would be lost to the reader, and in the process so is the reason to translate it (based on positive expectations).
It is important for acquirers of Arabic literature to realize the mechanisms that most of them are unconsciously activating as they read. I believe that books have an intrinsic aesthetic and narrative value, and this value is bound to escape us if we approach them with reductive categories.
Nevertheless, I would like to stress on the fact that the picture I just sketched of the difficulty of selling Arabic fiction is not complete. Having stereotypes is not a bad thing in itself. This is how cognition works. We need categories to navigate efficiently in the world. We need to group things together to be able to identify them, and know them. Arabic written literature is not the only literature to suffer from stereotypes, and it would be wrong to say that Arab editors don’t apply stereotypes to French, German or American literature themselves.
The question is why do these stereotypes have a particularly bad impact on Arabic literature? Quite simply, the reason is because there is nothing else; nothing to compare them to, and counter them with. And this is where, as Arab book people, our crucial responsibility lies.
Clearly, more information is needed, and more communication channels with the rest of the publishing world are required. Communication channels include the substantial efforts witnessed in the area in recent years, mainly in the UAE. It is key for international publishers to be exposed to Arabic written literature, and to actors of the industry. Coming to an Arab book fair gives more than information on books. It gives a sense, however superficial, about countries, people, working cultures, problems, tastes; it puts flesh on the abstract concepts one perhaps had, and introduces an array of nuances where things were more clearly cut. Thus, these efforts are important. But they are not enough.
Information directed to international publishers, and tailored communication channels only promote translation rights. And they do so punctually. What we need is continuous, reliable, general information. It is true we are getting better at exporting ourselves. But we also need to ‘import’ ourselves, so to speak. Most notable efforts mainly have an impact on the image of the Arab book outside the Arab world. They have less impact inside. Prestigious literary prizes and translation grants are necessary. Without the prizes, less people would have heard of Baha’ Taher, or Rabi’ Jaber, for example. Without translation grants, no publisher would have acquired the English rights of Samar Yazbek’s work – and her book would not have been number one of its category on the Amazon’s best seller list (!), a first, in my experience.
Still, we need more. We need more Baha’ Tahers, Rabi’ Jabers and Samar Yazbeks. And this can only be achieved with a different kind of effort on our part.
(1) More room should be made at home for writers and intellectuals to be heard, to develop and to grow, more opportunities created
(2) The golden era of web may have allowed for a multitude of communication platforms, literary blogs and so forth, but none reached a sufficient mass or gained sufficient authority to make a real difference on the quality of the production at large
(3) Reliable information on books is still lacking, and this lack of transparency not only allows for piracy, but also prevents a true assessment of the market, both in terms of size and of content. As a consequence, the efforts of professionalization brought by external actors only reach the most visible part of the books people, and this is not enough to make a real structural change
(4) Distribution of physical books across the Arab world will perhaps be partly solved in the future with the development of e-books in the area, but this will not necessarily empower publishers, whom either for lack of means or of professional resources are for the most part already unable to proceed with a deeper, qualitative, editing of the books they produce
In a nutshell, these are structural problems that impact not only the economy of the book industry, but also more importantly, the quality of books, as well as readers. These problems need to be addressed if we want a deep positive and qualitative evolution of the book industry.
Without going too far, and focusing on what I know best, namely the agency I’ve been running since 2004, below is a concrete example of how, on different levels, the problems listed above limit growth:
(1) With the absence of opportunities for writers and intellectuals, only marginal parts of our societies consider following this path. Most people working independently in this environment, including myself, have more than one job to cover for life expenses. This has two types of consequences. Not only I cannot dedicated my time fully to the agency, had I wanted to, but this also limits my capacities to hire people and develop for lack of qualified and interested personnel.
(2) The fact that there are no real opportunities for writers and intellectuals to grow, coupled to the fact that there is no authoritative instrument that seriously promotes quality affect my activity in a different way. It also reduces the pool from which I can choose clients. RAYA was conceived as an agency dedicated to high quality fiction. If quality is not seriously valued and assessed (outside academia), the quality of the production will remain highly unequal across the board, with effectively a smaller proportion of books that are both good enough to be promoted, and interesting to a foreign audience. As a consequence, as long as I only wish to work with a certain quality of books – a guarantee of my credibility on the international scene – I can only be small by definition.
(3) The lack of information on books has an indirect impact on quality, and a direct impact of the difficulty one has to stay informed about what is happening on the literary scenes of different parts of the Arab world. The multiplication of small information platforms is not a solution, and the overload of information does not mean it is reliable, or easily accessible. In this context, looking for information and staying informed is time consuming, much more than it should be.
(4) The absence of distribution makes it hard not only to hear of the book, but also to get your hand on it. This basically forces you to contact the author in order to get an electronic file of her or his book, a delicate enterprise given that you might turn the author down after reading her/his book, knowing that you were the one to have solicited her/him.
These may seem like small details, but they add up and feed each other, creating a vicious circle. They also scale up when applied to bigger institutions. Although things might be easier for bigger institutions, if we want the book sector to truly develop, it must be possible for smaller initiatives to exist. Small institutions are what will guarantee a growth that is organic and adapted to the local market. We need to take information and its impact on society, quality of books and the economy of the publishing industry seriously to give all its chances to the improvements we are waiting for. I believe these things can change. And my desire for them to change is the reason why I do what I do. My only hope lies in the fact that this is why most book people also do what they do.