I am a Sudanese essayist and poet, currently focused on writing critical essays tackling controversial cultural, literary, intellectual, and political issues in the Arab world and worldwide. I have over twenty years’ experience as a columnist in opinion journalism, and I have practiced electrical engineering for over twenty years as well, enjoying and sometimes suffering from the continuous challenge of twinning both careers.
I have twenty books published in Arabic, and “Damn the Novel” is my first book recently translated to English (More details about my works and experience are available at www.nasdahab.com – All my social media accounts: @nasdahab).
The Title Should of Course Not Be Taken Literally!
It is good for the book to have a controversial title, but the main notion and the detailed ideas of any book should be explored patiently behind the cover. A newly published press release summarizes seamlessly the idea behind “Damn the Novel” as follows: “Compelling commentary on the state of modern literature that rebuts the notion that novels and narrative fiction are the zenith of creative expression and challenges readers and writers to explore other creative forms, such as poetry, short stories and nonfiction essays”.
Damn the Novel! (Excerpt)
Whenever I propose one of my book drafts to a publisher, believing that I am making an appealing offer, his response always takes the same form: “We’d rather see a novel!” In a similar vein, an esteemed publisher responded jokingly, but somehow seriously, to my perpetual expression of avoidance of every potential esteem or affection for the novel: “What about writing a novel against novels?”
Gaber Asfour, the renowned Egyptian literary critic, has incessantly articulated that “we are living in the novel’s era.” The slogan, having survived for many years now, is still spontaneously uttered every now and then within literary circles. But Asfour has ushered in a new dictum that defines the modern time according to a literary perspective similar to the existing dicta, including the Era of the Internet and the Era of Speed.
If the Era of the Novel were not an expression of underestimation toward the other literary genres, I would take the lead in supporting a definition of our time anchored in literature. It would be honoring a craft that has been subject to much unfairness. In fact, literature has been resisting marginalization so audaciously that it merits homage for staying alive.
But the slogan is designed to tease poetry rather than the Internet or speed. The more the dictum in question is being propagated, the more conscious we become of the fact that poetry, in spite of topping the list of presumed enemies, is not the only target. The list also includes the short story, which has ultimately been designated as the novel’s fiercest opponent in the race to leadership, given that poetry has already been kicked out of the game. Short prose narrative, basically the short story, remains a potential rival supported by a handful of writers—the majority of whom would strive to acquire the prestigious title of “novelist” rather than being referred to as, simply, “short story writers.”
Because the transition from short story writing to novel writing requires no more than the acquisition of (some) additional knowledge and little expertise to keep up with the rhythm of a longer race, it was not that tough for those prose writers who opted to begin the journey. Worse still, many poets, said to have been custodians of the Arabic poetic tradition, have been captivated by the new wave—that is, the novel—that has sprung from a Western background and not from any of the forms of Arabic prose that have existed since the pre-Islamic era (Jahiliyyah).
Literature is said to be a contagious temptation leading to new shores of experimentation and unique expectation. Nevertheless, mobility within literary genres seems to predominantly be a show, rather than an honest devotion to any sort of wordsmithing arts. There is no harm, as far as I am concerned, in the pursuit of the craft during a writer’s innocently naïve intellectual adolescence, nor is there any shame voyaging across the different fields of creative writing as an example of the author’s prowess and to show off, provided it is possible to master more than one literary genre. Accordingly, any obsession with shifting from one genre to another only for the sake of being awarded titles (of honor) has nothing to do with the process of stepping patiently across the long, bumpy path of writing in different genres, regardless of the success or failure it may ultimately reap.
And so, there is no doubt that those who curse the novel are not always writers whom the long narrative genre has never been able to seduce. There exist many other sects of literary professionals along with numerous eager followers who have declared a similar stand. Most poets and poetry devotees are said to show much more bitterness in this respect. In different words, they are the biggest losers in this “Era of the Novel”, because poetry has always been, throughout the history of Arabic literature, regarded as the most superior genre, worthy of domination over all other genres.
However, the short story is another big loser, in the sense that it was close to being crowned the leading literary genre before it was bitterly disqualified from the race to the peak. The readers eventually decided, in this Era of Speed, to side with the “long-distance race.”
Novelists, as well as the novel’s devotees, are to cheer their presumed victory as they like, but they should do it without prompting us to share their “inevitable” perspective on the basis of a deceptive conceptualization or, as we have just seen, on reverse logic (i.e., the decision to side with the long-distance race in the Era of Speed).