Affective Readings: Emotion and Society in/of Egyptian Literature, 1990 to 2020
By Christian Junge
What are the social functions of reading literature? While many studies approach Arabic literature primarily through the lens of authors, the literary field, or sociopolitical discourses, my interdisciplinary postdoctoral research project, “Affective Readings”, shifts the focus to the readers. I ask: What do readers read, and how and why? Turning away from the model of the ‘ideal reader’ as developed by reader response criticism, I’m interested in ‘empirical’ or ‘real’ readers as they appear on social media. On Facebook, YouTube, Instagram or Goodreads, Arab and non-Arab users and readers post book reviews about their personal reading experiences, often highlighting affective and intimate dimensions of reading. Taking Egyptian prose literature from 1990 to 2020 as a case study, I approach emotional reading communities and ask about the importance of emotion to society: How does literature narrate society through emotions? And how does society read literature and is affected by it?
Transformations of Egyptian Literature
Egypt has a broad and vibrant literary scene, which has changed a great deal over the last thirty years. The so-called ‘Generation of the 1990s’, for instance, turned away from politically committed literature in order to write experimental works. At the beginning of the 2000s, the emergence of bestsellers and cult novels had a huge impact on the literary market. In the aftermath of the revolution of 25 January 2011, autobiographic prose or Tahrir memoirs also became popular, while in the last seven years, new genres such as horror fiction dominated the literary scene. These changes are part of wider social and cultural transformations in Egypt. In this regard, literature offers its readers ways of making sense of these changes, of shaping them or of finding refuge from them. With “Affective Readings”, I approach literature not as a container for ideas, but as an emotional matrix. I ask: What are the social functions of reading literature?
The project comprises of four elements: analysing the role of emotion and affect in literature and society; approaching fiction at large by bringing ‘high-brow’ literature in dialogue with popular literature; focussing on digital readership on social media; and developing a postcolonially sensitive approach for conducting research on Egyptian literature and society from Germany.
Emotions that Matter
Emotions are produced by social communities, affective constellations and structures of feeling. In this regard, the feeling of a protagonist in a novel says a lot about his or her role in society. Miral al-Tahawy’s The Blue Aubergine, for instance, follows the anxieties of a rebellious girl and young woman, who eventually finds her place in society through writing. Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building tells the story of an ambitious young man who becomes an angry terrorist. Stemming from recent theories in cultural studies and social sciences, the analysis of emotion and affect is an important way to understand personal agency in relation to social dynamics. Accordingly, literature provides hidden transcripts of emotional communities and insights on how members of these communities deal with, for instance, love, hope, fear and frustration.
But literature does not only describe emotion and affect. It also elicits and navigates feeling. In Egyptian horror fiction, for example, the reader appreciates getting goose bumps and shuddering as part of an intense experience. Dystopian fiction, meanwhile, often provokes shock and fear related to a critique of society. My research project, thus, analyses social emotions in literature in conjunction with the aesthetic emotions of literature. It seeks to understand the social functions of fiction, such as creating a collective memory, making sense of complex realities, offering entertainment or managing mood and affects.
Literature at Large
In order to comprehend literature through its different aesthetic practices and social uses, it is important to read elitist literature together with popular literature – that is to say, prize-winning novels alongside literary blogs, avant-gardist fiction alongside bestsellers. Take the phenomenon of One hour reading (Sa’at qira’ah): this is a horror fiction series that promises that all of its novels can be read within an hour, on your way to school or work. In these mini-novels, the reading progress is illustrated every 15 minutes with a watch face, showing how many minutes remain until the end.
Emotions and affects are differently described and expressed, provoked and navigated in revolutionary memoirs, experimental novels or horror fiction. Approaching literature at large, my research brings together various literary genres and social readerships of different periods. Let us take the example of young adult literature. Most Egyptian readers born in the 1970s and 1980s started reading fiction with the serialised novels of Ahmed Khaled Towfik. But it was only in the late 2000s that he became known to a wider audience in Egypt. Now he is a star with a large fan base, and his book series Paranormal is adapted as a TV series on Netflix. This example, amongst others, shows that readers are important for the fate of literature.
Digital Reading Communities
With the emergence of social media, reading communities have become more visible in the public sphere. YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Goodreads provide new ways of writing about reading. This also effectuates new forms of reading. My project approaches these digital reading communities in order to understand the social functions of literature. What, how, and why do people read literature? “Although I’m used to horror fiction”, a young female Egyptian reader confesses, “the novels of this guy, for sure, make the blood freeze in your veins. What do you want more than horror and suspense?” A middle-aged British reader, meanwhile, comments on a memoir of the revolution: “[This] inspires and should be read by young people everywhere. It is a testament of youth in these corrupt times.”
“Affective Readings” evaluates these reading communities in social media by collecting book reviews written by non-professional readers and conducting qualitative content analyses that consider the practices, experiences and functions of reading. Focussing on Egyptian literature from 1990 to 2020, it takes into account its transregional and multilingual readership, using Arabic and English samples from readers in Egypt, Maghreb Mashreq, Europe and North America. Egyptian fiction is often read differently abroad than in Egypt and the Arab World. This challenges North-American and European assumptions on the social function of Egyptian literature, on topics such as the predominance of social and political critique or the topics of trauma and emancipation
A Postcolonial Reading Together
In the framework of postcolonial studies, I’m eager to discuss my research with my Arab colleagues. Creating intercultural and multilingual research communities is a crucial way to de-exoticise the Arab World and provincialise European perspectives. For me, as a German Arabist, it is important to discuss the transformations of Egyptian literature, culture and society in a postcolonially sensitive way. Together with Egyptian scholars from the field of literary and cultural studies, I practice what I call ‘reading together’, a way to evaluate empirical data and analyse literary texts jointly.
To conclude, “Affective Readings” seeks to understand the complex relationships between literature and society. Focussing on an extensive sample of readers on social media, it approaches emotional reading communities in Egypt and abroad. Through the lens of emotion and affect, it thereby analyses social practices and functions of Egyptian literature in a changing society.
Christian Junge is a Senior Lecturer at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at Philipps-University Marburg, Germany, and currently a visiting professor of the Elite Master’s Programme “Cultural Studies of the Middle East” at the Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg and the Friedrich Alexander-Universität Erlangen/Nuremberg. He studied Arabic studies, literature and comparative literature in Berlin, Paris and Cairo. Christian is a member of the Arab German Young Academy, co-director of the program “Arabische Philologien im Blickwechsel”, and founding member of the project “Für ein lebendiges Wissenschaftsarabisch: Halqa arabiyya” at the CNMS. His current research interests include affect and emotion in postmodern Egyptian literature, literature and philology in the Nahda of the long 19th century, and postcolonial language critique. You can also watch the “Affective Readings” project film on Youtube.
Citation: Christian Junge, Affective Readings: Emotion and Society in/of Egyptian Literature, 1990 to 2020, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 19.10.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/31191.