Alter-fiction, Alternative Criticism: The Heterodox Origins of Iranian Literary Modernity

As part of a series of three panels and a roundtable session on the topic of Iranian literary modernity, this panel is dedicated to the alternative roots of modern Iranian literature, meaning an investigation of the cross-fertilization of various local, transnational, trans-historical and to some extent extra-literary conditions that affected literary production in modern Iran. Unlike conventional wisdom which imposes a 'point of commencement' and a subsequent narrative of development on modern Iranian literature, the present studies foreground a variety of spatio-temporal specificities underlying much of Iranian literary modernity.

The panel begins in second half of the nineteenth century when Middle Eastern literary criticism underwent a reassessment of critical conventions. This impulse is investigated in Nefise Kahraman's “Comparison as a Method of Literary Reappraisal in 19th Century Iranian and Ottoman Literary Criticism” by drawing attention to the self-reflexive agency of Ottoman and Iranian literary critics in their attempts at setting new critical measures for judging literary works. This self-reflexivity challenges those accounts that ascribe to comparative literature a Eurocentric genealogy and highlights the role of innovative and nuanced early Middle Eastern comparatists in the comprehension of indigenous literary productions. Turning to the mid-twentieth century, Shayesteh Mousavi's “The Influence of the 1960s Literary Miscellanea on the Trend of Modernism in Iranian Fiction” challenges those established paradigms that assign the beginning of modernist trends in Iranian fiction to Sādiq Hidāyat's (1903-1951/1282-1330 sh.) Būf-i Kūr (The Blind Owl) (1937/1316 sh.) and instead investigates the role of literary gatherings known as Jungs (Miscellanea)--particularly Jung-i Isfahān (1965-1973/1344-1352 sh.), which has been regarded as the most impressive one--in discussing, determining, and disseminating their vision of literary modernity in the country during the 1960s. In a similar fashion, Roya Khoshnevissansari's “Iranian Oil Literature” contests posthumous classifications of modern Iranian literature such as “historical,” “social,” and “committed” by foregrounding those significant social factors that played a role in shaping literary productions in southern Iran. Specific attention is paid to the role of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in industrial refinery towns, those quasi colonized, inter-cultural spaces featured prominently in what is called “Iranian oil literature.”


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Although the publication of The Blind Owl (1937) has generally been regarded as a turning point in literary Modernism in Persian fictional literature, it can’t be considered as a discerning dynamic movement, since despite a few mimetic modern novels or short stories, all mere imitations of the modern writing style of The Blind Owl, Modernist literary devices and techniques were still unknown among Iranian writers.
Among modernistic movements in this time, one is literary journal called “khorous Jangi” (The Fighting Cock) (1941), published by a literary salon of the same name. This journal was published as a consequence of the opening in Iran’s cultural and political atmosphere, coincident with the downfall of Reza Shah. However it couldn’t achieve a significant output in order to develop the cultural condition of the country.
But in 1960s the modernistic trends started to grow. Some of the young and avant-garde writers joined together and established a variety of literary salons in different cities of Iran. The emergence of such salons mostly led to publication of literary journals entitled “Jong”(Miscellanea), among them are Jong-e Bāzār, Jong-e Torfeh and Jong-e Honar o adabiyāt-e Jonub and Jong-e Esfahān. In such Jongs, the Iranian writers and translators insisted upon the significance of development and change in Persian fictional literature in terms of point of view, language, form, etc.
Among all these Jongs, Jong-e Esfahān (1965-1973) should be regarded as the most impressive one. Jong-e Esfahan, regarding either theoretical aspects – publishing articles on modernistic approaches, theories and rhetorical devices – or practical aspects- publishing translations of modernist world fictions and Iranian modernist writers- played such a significant role in introducing Modernism to Iranian society.
Jong-e Esfahan’s writers, who partly were brought up in Western countries’ cultural atmosphere, had a more educated approach towards Modernism than the other Jongs’ writers did. By following a defined guideline during a long period, they earnestly pursued the flow of evolution in contemporary Persian literature.
Some of the most eminent Iranian Modernist literary figures are among this circle, such as Hushang Golshiri, Bahrām Sādeghi, Taghi Modarresi and Abo-al Hassan Najafi. Part of the modernist Iranian masterpieces like Shāzdeh Ehtejab (The Prince Ehtejab) and Malakout (The Divine Kingdome) were for the first time read and criticized in this circle.

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The established criticism of ‘Modern Persian Literature’ often rigidly and inconsistently classifies modern Persian fiction through labels such as ‘historical,’‘social,’‘committed’ and ‘provincial’. This classification, however, ignores the heterogeneity of sources that have contributed to the emergence and development of Iranian literary modernity. This heterogeneity derives from the temporal-spatial nature of these sources and their intra- and extra-literary conditions.
My paper contributes to this new approach by critically revisiting the regional or provincial classification of Iranian literature known as the 'Southern School.' According to the classic definition, the ‘Southern School’ is preoccupied with the extreme heat and humid climate of the south and the harsh social conditions of its inhabitants, particularly underprivileged workers. The latter is the focus of the ‘committed’ literary works associated with authors influenced by communist politics. This classification, however, lumps together areas in the south that have not produced the same literature, and also excludes regions that have similar literary traditions.
By introducing the term ‘oil-fiction,’ used first by Amitav Ghosh in his review of Cities of Salt by Abdulrahman Munif, this paper aims to provide a more precise and nuanced understanding of one of the sources of Iranian literary modernity. In this paper, I will examine a number of fictional works in which the impact of oil is quite visible.
Instead of regional boundaries, the focus on the direct and indirect role of oil allows us to understand the emergence of a genre that deals with modernity and its contradictions, urbanization and migration, the impact of the policies of the oil company, the experience living in a multicultural and semi-colonial society and company towns, colonial and transnational encounters, the role of technology, class politics and resistance.
While fictional, oil-fiction forms the counterpole of the dominant narrative about oil, which is often an institutional narrative of economic, technical, and political aspects focused on states and big corporations.This genre is inspired by real historical events and conditions, specially the role of Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in the region, and represents the hybridity of the oil-company towns.

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The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the inception of modern literary criticism in Iran and the Ottoman Empire that occurred in the form of a reassessment of critical conventions. Traditional discourse on rhetorics as the basis of criticism was challenged by content-oriented and objective critical attitudes. The debates surrounding "naqd-e fanni" in Iran and "usul-i tenkid fenni" in the Ottoman Empire saturated literary scenes, enabling a historical observation: these debates were not only tied to imperial centres but resonated regionally. In their attempt to redefine the principles and tools of a modern literary criticism, critics often resorted to the acts of comparison undertaken among different literary traditions. This paper examines these comparative orientations that have thus far remained unacknowledged by contemporary literary critics. The defining question this paper seeks to answer is what prompted these comparative moves. In addition, I will pay due attention to the questions of to what end these comparisons were made; were any values attached to the practice?; can we speak of a homogenous group of comparatists or were there different camps? Instead of reiterating the argument that foregrounds French influence on Ottoman and Iranian literary traditions, I intend to draw attention to the self-reflexive agency of Ottoman and Iranian literary critics in their attempt to reset new critical measures for judging literary works. As I will demonstrate, Ottoman and Iranian critics did not succumb to French archetypes and conventions in their critical pursuits; they inspected their own literary tradition as well as literatures that they had been in contact for centuries. The encounter and engagement of Ottoman and Iranian critics with varied literary traditions, particularly French, is often defined in terms of "crisis", "turmoil", or "anxiety". In this paper I deliberately refrain from reading this process in negative terms. Rather, I prefer reading it as "conscious resistance" (in reference to the self-reflexive agency I mentioned above), "reappraisal", and "cultivation". Finally I propose to view mid-19th century Iranian and Ottoman literary critics as early comparatists of a new tradition. The convention within the discipline of comparative literature has been rooted in the idea that comparative literature is emerged from Europe. By foregrounding the practice of comparison as a critical endeavour in non-European modernities, I aim to challenge and offer another perspective to the accounts that tend to ascribe a Eurocentric genealogy to the discipline of comparative literature.