Include vivid portrayals of shocking behavior.
The Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations at The American University in Cairo (AUC) hosted a lecture titled: “How (Not) to Write a Novel: Popular Fiction in the Nahda and Beyond,” by Dr. Samah Selim, Associate Professor of Modern Arabic Literature at Rutgers University. The lecture was held on Monday April 3, 2017.
Selim discussed how a novel started out as ‘popular’ in the 18th century. Writers like Henry Fielding were targeting the ‘popular’ audience through their novels. She spoke about five rules that have been used by novelists in the past couple of centuries.
Professor Selim also gave a survey of some of the more interesting practices in novel writing, focusing on 18th and 19th century Europe, the late 20th century Egypt, and early 21st century Egypt.
The first rule is to “get someone else to write it for you,” said Selim. In the 19th century, there was an institution in France called, Les Nègres, where many anonymous paid writers would act as ‘ghostwriters.’
Another rule Selim mentioned was pseudo-translation, or pretending that another person wrote the novel. Readers were intrigued to read a novel if they believed that the story came from an exotic place. For example, Horace Walpole began his novel, “The Castle of Otranto,” by stating that it is an English translation of an Italian manuscript from 1529.
An author might find it challenging to produce an original story for a novel - which brings us to the third rule. An author can borrow ideas, since, according to Christopher Booker , there are only seven types of plots in the world. An example of this is the 1905 historical novel “Al Selah Al Khafy” (The Invisible Weapon) by Egyptian writer, Saleh Gawdat, in which he states that he has adopted two separate works, Alexandre Dumas’ “La Marquise de Brinvilliers” and Emile Gaboriau’s “Les Amours d'une Empoisonneuse,” which revolved around the same historical story.
If all else fails, Selim suggested a fourth rule, which depends on the readers. Allowing your readers to help you produce your literary piece might prove to be beneficial. The readers, being so invested in the story, can demand a specific divergence for the plot. This has increased with the appearance of ‘wovels’ (interactive web novels published in installments) in the 21st century.
An attendee asked about the concept of ‘authorship,’ and how it is related to the ‘death of the author.’ Selim’s answer was that the idea of a text could be “a movable event.” In other words, a text will always stay alive as it moves across languages and borders. In that sense, the author does not play a part in the life of the text itself.
Professor Selim ended her lecture by mentioning the final rule, “make it racy and lie through your teeth to get past the censors.” It has become more and more common for writers to intrigue readers by including vivid portrayals of shocking behavior in their novels. This practice which still exists to this day.
This lecture was part of the Qahwa and Kalam series, which features various professors and lecturers each semester.