A round table talk where three IPAF Chair of judges discuss the prize.
25 April 2012
Q: The IPAF panels are usually constituted of members of different backgrounds: academics, critics, novelists, with different views of the function , the techniques, the aesthetics of a novel. How did you manage to agree on a common ground on which to base your assessment of the competing novels ?
Fadhil al-Azzawi: There’s no set formula for what a good novel is like. Had there been one, everybody would have learned it and written perfect novels. But there are general criteria: the beauty of the language, the richness of the topic, such general things. But these are all subject to the critics’ and readers’ subjective views; no absolute criteria exist. And even the taste of any reader or critic can change with time. Besides, there have always been new trends in novel writing, with new features. As for IPAF panels, I believe they should represent the diversity of the reading public, they should vary in their views, and this is healthy. What really matters is to have discussions about the novels and establish a common ground through those discussions.
Georges Tarabichi: Differences are inevitable . In his encyclopedic work, "Aesthetics", the German philosopher Hegel sets a number of different conditions for what is beautiful, but fails to define “beauty”, because once “beauty” is defined it loses its essence and function. This applies to novels. No two novels can be identical, a novel is like a human being, each one is unique. As for critics, they are like narrators of Hadeeth (sayings of prophet Mohamed). When asked how they could tell the authentic “hadeeth” from the fake one they used to say “like a money changer can tell the good dirham from the fake by touching it using their experience in the subject matter”, and this is what a good critic does; they depend on their experience and sense for good literature.
Taleb Alrefai: I agree with my colleagues that the diversity of the backgrounds from which the judges come enriches the process of assessment. Every panel consists of a number of experienced critics using their diverse knowledge to pick up the best novels. We have no specific criteria, but there are general principles, like the language quality, the skill of developing drama, these reflect a specific value. Panels look for distinguished novels, sometimes the judges disagree, and sometimes they can establish a common ground. In my panel we managed to set some common principles, but this is not compulsory, because at the end of the day a professional discussion is inevitable and should be able to settle any differences.
Q: You mentioned that it’s hard to have a specific definition of a good novel, and what makes your job even harder is that the winning novel is usually translated into European languages. When you set your own basis of assessment, whom do you have in mind, the Arab or the Western reader, since they have different approaches to the novels?
Fadhil: We deal with Arab novels, and the fact that those novels might be translated into Western languages is irrelevant. Our task is to find the best novel of the ones presented to us, and whether or not it will appeal to the Western reader doesn't concern us. We don’t have the translation issue in mind while assessing the novels.
Georges: I almost have nothing to add to what Fadhil has said. The elements that make up a good novel come from the inside of the novel, while I admit that the critic who assesses it is not isolated from his/her environment. The novel has become international. There are no Western or Eastern novels anymore. The aesthetic and critical criteria in both the West and the East are becoming similar. As Fadhil said, translation is not our concern.
Taleb: The issue of translation was not present when we assessed the novels. A good novel sells itself to any reader. In my panel translation was not a criterion, we assessed the shortlisted novels in relation to each other.
Q: I did not mean how good the selected novel is for translation, I meant that the Western approach is different. In the Arab world, for example, “ideology based” criticism and moral criticism is dominant. They expect a novel to deal with a big issue, which is not the case in the West. Was this important for you? Did you expect a “good” novel to deal with a "big issue” such as the life of emigrants, the Palestinian question etc…
Taleb: I believe that the biggest issue is the human being. We are dealing with novels not political statements. Average people have become the protagonists. In my panel we were not looking for big issues.
Georges: Our work is very similar to what a guest at a restaurant has to do: he is offered a menu and he can only chose from what is available. It was the same for our panel: we had to choose the best of the novels given to us, not the best in an absolute sense.
Fadhil: Maybe if the panels could recommend novels that were not nominated by publishers we could make the "menu” richer.
Q: Five years after the launch of IPAF, do you think it has been successful? And if yes, why?
Taleb: What makes IPAF’s presence in the Arab world distinguished is its transparency. The publishers nominate the novels, then the long list is announced, then the shortlist and the panel is introduced. Everything is happening in public, readers are in direct touch with the process. Translation is also a plus, because it means extra income for the author who is not very well rewarded by his Arab publishers. Besides, the winner is placed in the limelight of the world media.
Georges: The partnership with The Booker Prize gave IPAF an international identity. In some local prizes in the Arab world local limits interfere in the process: a sexually explicit novel may not win a prize, for example, even if it is good. Here the literary value of the novel is what counts.
Fadhil: I agree with what has been said, and I only want to add that writers view IPAF as an important prize because a specific novel is judged regardless of the name of the author and his previous achievements.