Harmless literary "gossip" has given way to outright hostility

What happened to healthy competition? It seems, these days, that rivals have replaced muses.

Harmless literary "gossip" has given way to outright hostility

Sometimes it feels like Arab writers could make a fortune from turning their gossip about one another into their life’s work.

If there was a "literary" award for this gnawing habit of taking cheap shots at other writers behind their backs, many would have filled their shelves with trophies that had little to do with their novels, short stories, and poetry.

The phenomenon of gossip in literary circles has gotten out of control. It’s to a point where two writers can’t get together without their conversations veering into mockery — harmless or otherwise.

There is, of course, a distinction between different types of gossip.

In Yemen, the terms "Hash" and "Hashoosh" are used to refer to a more harmless kind. It's unclear whether the word is related to "Hashish" (cannabis), but the two things do have one thing in common: they both have comedic potential, for better or worse.

Yemenis don't consider "Hash" (i.e. gossip) to be born of ill intentions. If you walk into a café and come across a group of your fellow writers, for instance, they might laugh, tellingly, and say, "We were just talking about you."

But there's a more insidious kind of gossip that's becoming more and more common, among male and female writers alike.

The phenomenon of gossip in literary circles has gotten out of control. It's to a point where two writers can't get together without their conversations veering into mockery —harmless or otherwise.

Overheard in Europe

The other day, I was in a café in a European city with three female Arab writers, when I overheard them talking about Arab poets and novelists in a way that I could've never dreamt of.

Their jeering sentiments took a tone reminiscent of the writings of Muhammad Al-Maghout. These grown-ups, who sounded more like teenagers, held nothing back. They flayed their peers and referred to them in ways that pushed the boundaries of modesty and decency.

All of this, with no thoughts spared for their right to privacy.

If these writers had even an inkling of what was being said about them, they wouldn't have been in a rush to exchange pleasantries the next time their paths crossed at a book fair.

"Habibti" no more

I used to have a habit of addressing my loved ones with the common Arab term of endearment habibi (for males), or habibti (for females).

That is, of course, until I became a source of amusement for the late dean of Yemeni journalists, Saleh Al-Dahhan, due to admitted overuse.

But after meeting these three female writers, I tried to retire my use of the word "habibti" for good.

If I ever slip up, I quickly follow it with the phrase "I love you for the sake of God". (It's something I learned from TV muftis, who used it as a response to female inquirers who would similarly say, "We love you for the sake of God, Sheikh!")

My self-censorship comes down to the fact that these "gossip" sessions can range from harmless to outright hostile.

It's the kind of antagonism that has no place in "literary wars", which are renowned across the world and, according to Abu Hayyan Al-Tawhidi, can lead to thought-provoking conversations.

Instead, it's underlined by envy and bad blood. Rivalries become a race for spoils and awards, proximity to power and good old fame and prestige.

This bleeds into national battles between authors, too, as each writer fights to represent their country at whatever festival or award ceremony. In some countries, this mentality is increasingly common until "enough" writers emerge to achieve sufficient representation on the world stage.

Death of nuance

Yemen has become famous in recent decades thanks to poets Al-Maqaleh and Al-Baradouni. So strong is their presence, many would struggle to name any other Yemeni writers.

However, a hidden animosity between them was common knowledge in their close circles.

Nobody in the cultural scene dared to criticise them. Al-Baradouni, known for his literary provocations, remarked in the mid-1990s that the new generation of writers lacked culture.

Spurred on by this, I published a series of articles in "The Cultural Republic," beginning with a piece entitled "The Death of the Vertical Poem!"

Al-Baradouni received it well, with a combination of amusement and approval. Meanwhile, some of his admirers saw it as an attack, despite my clear admiration for him within the text.

But I digress. This was in the past. As for the present, the war in Yemen has left little room for any literary battles other than those fought in Facebook bubbles. Everyone is expected to be on one side or the other, with no tolerance for any criticism, neutrality, or even silence.

This kind of antagonism has no place in "literary wars". This bleeds into national battles between authors, too, as each writer fights to represent their country at whatever festival or award ceremony.

Nuance, as they say, is dead. This is a situation familiar to most writers around the world.

French writer Romain Rolland (1866-1944) poked fun at nationalists who turned against him due to his political stance. After receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature (1915) and opposing the war (which he believed was sparked by exploitative politicians and reactionaries), he was subject to a smear campaign, up to and including accusations of treason.

There are writers who have managed their literary battles skillfully, as Balzak and Flaubert did, despite all the trouble that surrounded them.

Ultimately, it depends on the writer's own perspective of literature and their role within it, as well as what they believe they can achieve within these definitions.

Healthy competition

However, it seems prudent for writers today to avoid going up against their close peers, including fellow countrymen or those who speak their language.

Otherwise, they might find themselves entangled in a web of counterproductive hearsay that stifles their skill and isolates them from the literary world.

If an author desires healthy competition, let it be the kind that goes the distance. It would involve writers who are geographically diverse, preferably belonging to a different culture or writing in another language.

Because it would be a shame to find out that, instead of muses, writers could only fuel their creativity by summoning the image of their rivals in their mind's eye.

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