The Future of the Novel

Keynote address by Sahar el Mougy


This event was previously scheduled to be presented at the Edinburgh World Writers Conference, Cairo, December 9th 2012. The event had to be cancelled due to the upheavals in the city at that time.

Sahar el Mougy Keynote text: “The Egyptian novel: questions and challenges”

In the last decade, the world as we have known it since World War Two has changed, is still changing. We are actually in the very heart of this change now. The internet revolution is one facet of this change. It is both a reflection of the ongoing strong current of change as well as one of its many causes.  And in parallel with the internet revolution, waves of social upheaval have been gaining force in different parts of the world since 2004, and culminating in the huge wave of protests of 2007 till the present moment. The two factors of the internet revolution and the social upheavals raise questions related to the novel and to what extent the genre is affecting and being affected by this change.

I believe the internet has led to a multi-layered state of democratization. It has led to an expansion of readership, with readers gaining access to free books online, the classics as well as the hacked. Culture is no longer accessed only by those who could pay for its products. Yet the democratization of culture raises questions related to the publishing business: has this access enjoyed by the “people” been as fortunate to the publishers? Is there a threat to the business? Will the publishers have to think of ways of competing, or maybe minimizing the damage?

The internet has also democratized writing and self-publishing. Since the year 2000, millions of people around the world have enjoyed the free space for self expression offered in blogs and on the pages of social media. Some of those bloggers happened to be/ turned out to be writers. They were young writers with hardly any access to the publishing world. But through the virtual space, they could write and with a tap on the keyboard their writings were out there, readers reading and responding. Online self-publishing would not bring the writers money, yet their works would be read, they would be given feedback and offered a chance to pool with other writers/ bloggers.

In the Egyptian case, blogging was not just an escape from and a challenge to the publishing business. More importantly, it has lead to some radical psychological change in the 1980s generation, which I call “the Emergency Law generation”. This is the generation which has been born to a multi-faceted marginalization. They called themselves “the Egyptian expatriates in Egypt” as shown in the slogan of an internet radio station- “Teet”- whose mission statement reads: “The Voice of the Egyptian Expatriates in Egypt”. Funny but true. Blogging eventually meant resistance, the cultural resistance of the oppressed as Bill Ashcroft puts it in Post Colonial Transformations, though the colonizer-colonized relationship has acquired new dimensions. Blogging has offered those writers a zone where they can deconstruct and reconstruct their sense of identity against the social and political mainstream. Lately, many Egyptian blogs have been popular enough to seduce publishers into publishing such works (novels, poetry collections and short stories)! In order to keep up with this phenomenon, Amazon has started a self publishing line of E-novellas sold for one dollar. A certain percentage goes to the writers. Is this the door to a deeper and wider change in the world of writing/ publishing? Does it pose a challenge to the critic and to the reader?

The other element which I believe will impact the novel in many ways is the social/ political upheaval the world has been witnessing since 2004. From Iceland to Greece and Spain, from the Arab world to the UK, Russia to the US, ripples of anger against the failure of governance are growing. How will this new consciousness impact on the novel? While I do not have the answers regarding world literature, I can attempt to trace some signs of change in Egypt. In parallel with the work of the civil opposition groups, the world of culture/ writing has enjoyed a revival. New publishing houses have been founded, many of them introducing new voices. Quite a number of new novelists have emerged. Some of those writers came from the blogging world. More bookstores have opened. Signing events are taking place, a newly introduced tradition which did not exist before 2004. Private book clubs, operating away from the cultural institutions which monopolized all cultural activities for decades, have mushroomed. Meanwhile, Writers and Artists for Change was founded in 2005, a branch out of Kefaya, the mother movements to many offshoots. On 5th September 2005, fifty five Egyptian artists and theater critics were burnt to death in a fire that took place in a small performance hall in Beni Soueif.  The tragedy came as yet another bitter reminder of the dilapidated state of the political regime. Writers and artists left their desks and  protested for months on end against the Ministry of Culture and the corrupt regime which protected the minister for twenty three years in office. Serious questions related to the state’s continuous efforts (since the 1970s) to “tame” the Egyptian writers have surfaced.

In the meantime, a question related to the content of the novels written by the writers of the last two decades poses itself. Children of the internet have been exposed to the world in a different way. The image has been part of their perception of the world. Would the content and style of such writings reflect some change as compared to the works of the previous generations? In certain cases, a happy marriage existed between narratives and the image, as in the case of the graphic novel. In some other cases, novels were affected by the blogging medium in that they show a tendency to pull down the wall between writer and reader. There is always an addressee with whom the writer engages. I would borrow Maggie Gee’s question here: will the novel develop into an oral saga? It very well might.

In some novels, the language and tools of the internet have been adopted and adapted within the narration. The formatting, for example, of emails, chats and fragmented conversations have inspired some novels. Some blogs have been converted, with minimal or no changes, into books. To what extent will the genre, already flexible and receptive of new elements, evolve or change? Could it be that what is happening represents the early seeds of a more radical change yet to materialize?

But one can already register some change in the content of the Egyptian novel, a change which coincided with the awakening taking place since 2004. Many Egyptian novels stopped turning their back on the political. Unlike the works of the writers of the 1990s (myself included), which dealt with the subjective and the personal, some novels built bridges with the socio-political context. Examining the novels of the 1990s, one finds out that the writers turning their backs on the reality that was out there was both a need and a statement. The novelists explored their sense of estrangement, both on the level of the self- self or that of self-surrounding reality. The rejected self busied itself with its quest. There was a need to wrap one’s self in the inner cocoon. I guess what took place in many novelists’ minds then was that maybe the existentialist quest would bear fruit, unlike the engagement with the political. This was also a statement against the mainstream which alienated writers and pushed them to the far away desert of indifference.

Significantly, some of those same writers (who enjoyed the cocoon in the 1990s) showed some degree of involvement with their context as revealed in their novels in the mid 2000s. For instance, in my 1999 novel Daria, the reader can hardly trace the time frame of the story, which focuses on the protagonist’s journey towards some degree of self-knowledge and her fight against patriarchal pressures. In 2007, I published Noon, which takes place in Cairo between 2001- 2004. It begins with 9/11 and takes the reader to the fall of Saddam Hussein. Though it is not a political novel, it reveals a state of re- engagement. Now the journey of the self (of the four characters) could be located in a specific time, against a specific background which impacts the characters in many ways. Many novels showed direct engagement. Then the revolution happened.

During the revolution, social media platforms revealed a change in the position of Egyptian writers. It has made their voices louder when it comes to issues of change. Egyptian writers, who complained back in the 1990s of closed circles of readership, were both witnesses to the social change as well as active agents in it. Their position changed from the marginal to the focal. During the Egyptian revolution, writers’ tweets, facebook statuses, article quotes and youtube clips helped steer public opinion and raise debates. Their presence in the streets and on social media reflected the awakening of the people and endorsed it simultaneously. Ironically, such presence was highlighted because of the virtual space, which was no longer “virtual”. The internet, rather than the media, became the treasure house of the collective consciousness.

Now I believe the question of the collective consciousness has put writers in a difficult position. How would the novel capture a moment that is larger than life? One of the major successes of the revolution is the deconstruction of the image of the collective self, carefully etched by the dictator who has worked really hard to deform/ defame it. We found out we are not “lazy”, “submissive”, “indifferent” and “ignorant” as they have told us about ourselves. On the exact contrary, we are beautiful, compassionate, brave and wise. We have an insatiable craving for freedom and justice and dignity. And we are willing to pay the price of what we want. In the first eighteen days of the revolution, we were larger than life. Memory keeps record of amazing moments which challenge the writer. Can he/ she portray these moments of grandeur? How can writing capture and frame glory and bliss and the painful but joyous experience of rebirth?

Photography can do it. Poetry can do it, now. But the novel tells the novelist “Wait, this is not the right time. Live the experience. Take photographs and notes and enjoy the poetry. Join the marches and write articles if you wish. Sleep on it. One day you will revisit the squares and be able to write”.

The question of how the novel can keep up with such a radical change of consciousness is open to infinite possibilities. When Egyptian novelists will write about the revolution is unknown to me. But I am certain that the Egyptian novel of the next decade will turn into a playground of experimentation and aesthetic adventures based on the principle of “the sky is the limit”. Haven’t we seen it happen? And most certainly the novel will reflect new perceptions of reality and a reconstruction of the image of the collective self.

Sahar el Mougy, 2012