A Brief History of a Decline: The Iranian Novel at the Dawn of the Millennium

Go to Enqelab Street and talk to any publisher of literary fiction. Search the archives of news agencies covering culture in Iran (BBC Persian, Iranian Labour News Agency [ILNA], Islamic Society of North America [ISNA], Iran Book News Agency [IBNA], etc). Compare the slim Iranian literature section to other shelves in Tehran’s bookstores. All signs point to a steep decline in readership, and widespread trepidation among Iranian publishers and writers.

Still, a number of writers persist. They hang by their fingertips, struggling to find a way out, both financially and creatively. They go to book launches where the audience hardly exceeds a handful of other writers. They attend readings to listen to their friends. Iran’s literary world is walking unsteadily on a loose tightrope, and a slight push could bring it to an end.

This piece is an effort to understand how we have ended up where we are.

Transcending Conventional Explanations

Up to the end of the 1980s, the Iranian literary scene was vivid. Students and activists devoured Iranian opinion pieces, and the authoritative voices of Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Gholam Hossein Saedi shook public life. At the height of this artistic and intellectual interaction was the Goethe Nights, ten nights of poetry readings by prominent Iranian writers in Tehran’s German embassy, shortly before the 1979 Revolution. The event drew thousands, and rapidly transformed into an anti-Shah protest that provoked local police, as well as worldwide coverage and support. Those ten nights are considered one of the sparks that ignited the powder keg that was Iran under the Shah. Then, as the war with Iraq began, Ahmad Mahmoud’s novel The Burnt Land was a household text for families in war-stricken Ahvaz, where the novel is set. His three-volume magnum opus, The Zero Degree Latitude, sold tens of thousands of copies every year. So did Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Kelidar, which came out in ten volumes. That world is gone.

The most popular theory for this downfall is the economy of literary production. Currently, the number of writers who live off creating fiction in Iran is virtually zero. It wouldn't surprise Western authors nowadays—it's not much rosier for them. But it may well surprise that almost no institution—whether universities, residencies, or grant foundations—supports Iranian writers. Authors in Iran hardly get the opportunity to sit and work exclusively on a book. If they are mad enough to do so without financial support, they either do so on personal or family means, or they would likely die of hunger before completing the project.

Censorship is another popular explanation. Some may refute this claim by pointing to the eased censorship since Hassan Rouhani took power and the substantially softened post-Mahmoud Ahmadinejad crackdown, which still had little impact on the decline. This observation is true, except that it misses the big picture: short-term censorship matters far less than the long-term kind. It is one thing to tape up a singer's mouth for an hour; quite another to keep it taped for ten years while the singer languishes in a dungeon. In the former, as soon as the tape is ripped off, she can sing as well as ever; in the latter, her voice will likely never return.

Censorship in Iran is not a matter of one government or the other, but of chronic repression. Over tens, if not hundreds of years, countless ideas and images have been censored so brutally and unfailingly that they have been eradicated from the Persian language. As a result, a writer who comes up within this environment has been divested of certain forms of understanding, certain ways of articulating the censored issues, even before putting down the first word. She is operating within a severely damaged language.

In addition to these familiar, sociopolitical explanations, a significant but underestimated explanation is the decline in the very quality of literary production. Let’s look through the eyes of a reader, who has also lost trust in Iranian novels for personal reasons—irrelevance to her life, or aesthetic impoverishment. These factors are as crucial as their sociopolitical counterparts, and have accelerated this decline. Yet the texts themselves have been let off lightly.

The last decade and a half has witnessed a remarkable change of discourse on the craft of storytelling. One noticeable change is the ubiquity of creative-writing workshops. Up until the nineties, two major writers, Hooshang Golshiri and Reza Baraheni, ran prestigious workshops in Tehran. Attending their classes endowed young writers with credibility. Within the last decade, however, writing workshops have mushroomed across the city. Writers with meager resumes now charge aspiring authors substantial fees to supposedly make them literary stars. Many Iranian writers signed up to literary principles that emerged from these workshops at the dawn of the new millennium, when the technological revolution was also affecting literary production. This culminated in a series of novels and stories that bear remarkable resemblance to one another.

Visit the contemporary Iranian fiction section in any bookshop in Tehran, and one thing will catch your attention at once: most of these books are very thin. The market is saturated with novels and short story collections that mostly range from 100 to 200 pages. Leaf through them, and you may notice another characteristic: language that is over-polished, scrubbed down to its most communicative form. Adjectives and adverbs are conspicuously rare, descriptions terse and direct, and very few, if any, digressions from the storyline occur.

Read a bit further and another shared quality will emerge: a clinical approach to the fictional world that avoids exploring complications or paradoxes. Iranian writers seem reluctant to push their characters to life’s limits, to trap them in extreme situations where they must fight to survive, resist madness, or make wrenching decisions. Take for instance Fariba Vafi, an author whose female characters have been largely praised: in My Bird (Syracuse University Press, 2009), a woman is at the mercy of her ambitious husband, but her long monologue hardly transcends the boundaries of quotidian life; in Tarlan, a tomboy aspires to become a policewoman, yet never explores this exciting premise beyond everyday interactions with the woman’s friend and family. The writer seems constrained by conventional social reality.

These limited worlds exist with another feature of recent Iranian novels: a journalistic quality that focuses more on addressing social issues than creating art. A glance at popular novels of the 2000s bears out this suggestion: Vafi’s My Bird was praised for voicing the frustrations of educated Iranian housewives. Hossein Abkenar’s A Scorpion on the Steps of Andimeshk Railroad Station received acclaim for spotlighting a previously under-narrated aspect of the war. Jairan Gahan’s Under the Carefree Afternoon Sun drew attention as the first novel portraying the Iranian Jewish community after decades of under-representation. All these novels, which won multiple literary awards and gained public attention, tell their stories quickly, wrapping up in under 200 pages. Their success can be attributed to what they said, not how they said it.

As a result, among the large cast of characters created in the last fifteen years, very few, if any, are memorable. Unlike Ahmad Mahmoud’s Khaled in The Neighbors (the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, 2013), Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Golmohammad in Kelidar, Hooshang Golshiri’s Ehtejab in The Prince (Harvill Secker, 2005), no literary creature of this period has secured a place in the pantheon of characters in the public imagination.

Keeping Up with the Pace of the Epoch

Although the written word, even before Gutenberg, was the de facto storytelling medium, the twentieth century dealt successive blows to its status: first came the radio, then cinema, then television, and then the Internet. For Iranian literary fiction, no period has been more challenging than the first decade of this millennium: thanks to the many cheap platforms the Internet offers, all competing mediums—from social media to podcasts to Netflix—augmented their narratorial abilities. They capitalized on easy access, and honed the art of the digestible narrative.

Among these exciting developments, the one that competes most fiercely with the novel is the TV series, which has taken over the cultural consumption of Iran’s elite. From the pavements of Enqelab Street to the backpacks of unlicensed film vendors who go door-to-door selling DVDs, American TV shows are now a staple of Iran’s cultural life. This recent surge in popularity proves that the motion picture has found a way to move beyond the film’s major shortcoming, namely its notoriety for ruining novels in the adaptation process. Novels tend to sprawl—grand swaths of time, numerous characters, various situations—something difficult to capture in a two-hour film. TV series, by contrast, indulge in a novelistic sort of vastness: for an avid reader of novels, indulging in a series’ complex characters and expansive plots bears undeniable resemblances to reading a great novel.

In contemporary Iran, young writers seem keen to prioritize TV shows and movies as their source of intellectual nutrition. Today’s rising Iranian writers may routinely discuss House of Cards and Game of Thrones, but go for days without having a conversation over a book. In fact, many creative writing teachers encourage young writers to take their creativity cues from TV shows, not novels. These teachers often operate closely with publishers, who in turn sell these literary tastes to readers. This cycle has been in effect long enough to form a dominant taste, reinforced by both reader and publisher.

The strongest evidence for this claim can be found in the books themselves: film script structures have permeated into novels and short stories. The consequence is a substantial change of tempo, a narrative pace that gravitates towards cinematic speed at the expense of all other rhythmic possibilities. Ironically, Iranian literature took the opposite path to Iranian cinema in this regard: while filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and Sohrab Shahid Sales attracted international attention by resisting mainstream Hollywood aesthetics, Iranian authors grew to take their literary cues from the very same.

Another competing storytelling form is social media, a form frequently criticized for its brevity. If weblogs were the earliest manifestation of social media, it is telling that in 2004, more than 64,000 Persian bloggers were active, while most Middle Eastern countries hardly had more than several hundred bloggers. This included many Iranian writers. Then came the rise of Facebook in late 2010s, which swept across Iranian media before taking hold in nearby countries. Many of these writers retired their blogs—now largely extinct in Iran—and moved on to social media, arguably the most ubiquitous published writings of our time. These rapid developments have redefined the very act of reading, engineering a new paradigm for absorbing narrative: quickly and visually.

This core shift has pressured Iranian novelists to justify a seemingly cumbersome form among fresh, nimble storytellers. The writer is told readers have no time, that they are busy and distracted. Sprawling narratives, lavish details, and complex plots ostensibly bore our contemporaries. Long, sophisticated, multi-faceted novels are creatures of the past, and to catch up, one should emulate the currently pervasive form of reading, which wants the textual perception very close to the visual one. While this phenomenon has had a worldwide influence, it is felt more strongly in countries like Iran, where the literary market is small and fragile, and authors cannot rely on institutional support. For this reason, they appear more prone to technological vicissitudes, more concerned about measuring their medium against the new competitors. Our novels increasingly resemble film scripts, our short stories, summary plots. A brief look at the story collections that have won literary awards, such as the Golshiri or Roozi Roozegari, over the past decade will prove this point.

From another angle, we reached the same place: Iranian novels are bent much more on showing than telling. They prefer straight, asphalt roads to trails and unbeaten tracks.

Loitering at Forks: In Praise of Slowness

This narrative isn't set in stone, though.

For travelers in a dry country like Iran, forks are special. Long stretches of monotonous drive come to a pleasant halt here, where the road splits in two. Forks often host a certain cast of services: gas stations, filthy restaurants with menus limited to kebab and chicken, small supermarkets presenting minimal commodities, car mechanics whiling away time under the sun, drowsing with a cigarette hanging from their lips. As opposed to the straight, empty road that tempts drivers to speed, forks invite them to pause. A fork is a knot in a long thread, a dramatic point in the traveler’s journey, the point at which the road's headlong rush comes to a halt.

In Loiterture, Chambers argues that the history of forks came to a head in ancient Rome, when forks took on a distinct character and an expressive name: trivia. Trivia were hubs of brothels and taverns, offering every earthly delight to worn-out travelers. A group of people even decided to live at forks, immersing themselves in vice and alcohol, turning a pastime into a lifestyle—to the scorn of city folks. This internalized aversion to forks left its mark on the word trivia to this day. Loiterly novels are likely the only form of cultural production that have defended forks: from Cervantes to Proust, literary masterpieces written in the meandering, idle form, novels that elevate the “trivial” to give it a central place in modern life.

Loiterly narratives are moving targets. Their apparent lightheartedness makes them hard to pin down and absorb, and prepares them for undermining the center. Such narratives have a long, noble history of manipulating the powers that be and coaxing them into change, which can be traced all the way back to A Thousand and One Nights. In Nights, the entrapped Scheherazade takes the Sultan on a journey outside the harem’s ramparts every night, and has him roam a wildly imaginary land to buy time and live one more day. Loiterature is her ultimate weapon for saving herself and the other women of the town.

In Iran, I hear that the age of big novels has come to an end. I hear that, given the speed of our lives and the Internet’s dominance, no reader has the time or focus to pick up a sizable novel; that if authors are to keep up, they should write concise stories. This advice arises out of a simple misunderstanding: our authors have taken the locus of literary narrative to be the road, rather than the fork. But the short novels and small stories that pop out of publishers' bags, hasten to tell their stories, and instantly recede into obscurity, achieve little.

Consider the handful of authors, such as Mohammad Reza Kateb and Monir al-Deen Beiruti, who defy mainstream publication trends with respect to volume, prose, and structure. In Kateb’s A Time for Falling Short, readers return to the Middle Ages, to a world where the currency is pain and torturers are bankers. In Beiruti’s Hello, Scarecrow! readers enter the diary of a cancer survivor and former prisoner, viewing the world from the position of bodily agony. Despite highbrow prose and complex narrative structure, both Kateb and Beiruti have drawn attention and success. Both books address a yawning gap that most of Iran’s novelists refuse to approach.

Literary narrative can project its power at forks. It harbors the unique ability for reflection—the courage to pause, slow, defer—for having us consider the details and nuances that fast-moving vehicles deny us. It works best not on the road, but where the road cracks and splits, where cars stop and drivers take a minute to look around and see again where they come from and where they go. Iranian literature will become revolutionary once more the moment the author slams on the brake.