On Loving Popular Fiction in Pakistan

Dr Javaria Farooqui


It is a truth universally acknowledged that happy endings are targets for scoffing and scorn by the proponents of literary fiction. Literature with a capital L is not supposed to be understood by the masses, to provide emotional satisfaction, to make sense, or money. Trivialising of popular fiction is systemic. To get rid of the shackles of literary snobbishness and acknowledge the nuances of the books loved by the majority, we may start thinking about what exactly popular fiction is. Perhaps it is defined best in opposition to literature. While literature keeps the reader at a distance, popular fiction focuses firmly on its audience and situates itself in their world and their imagination. Popular fiction is not produced, published, and processed in the same way as literature. Popular fiction cannot feign aloofness like literature, it embraces its closeness to the pulse of the readers’ dreams, and does not undermine the power of a knowledgeable escape.


While literature keeps the reader at a distance, popular fiction focuses firmly on its audience and situates itself in their world and their imagination

The case of popular fiction is more complicated in the highly patriarchal and rightist social structure of Pakistan. The most popular genre is romance, which is sometimes labelled as literary fiction and often given a religious flavour, to avoid judgement by the literary elite and the religiously sensitive masses. The lowbrow and popular in Pakistan is digest fiction, written in Urdu and available all over the country through ingenious circulation channels. These digests can be broadly divided into two gendered categories: Suspense, Jasoosi, and Sarguzisht, which target a predominantly male readership, and Khawateen, Shuaa, Pakeeza, Kiran, which proudly label themselves as women’s magazines, ‘behno ka apna mahnama’ (sisters’ own monthly digest). The digests targeting Pakistani male readers have a limited circulation as compared to the digests for women. These popular magazines contain translations of Western horror, mystery, and thriller genre fiction, autobiographies of ‘anonymous’ women, and stories with a moral lesson penned by male authors.


Artwork by Sarah Mumtaz

The consumers of women’s popular digests are mostly housewives, with a relatively lower level of education, and this is one of the reasons why the texts are received very derogatively in society. These digests contain novellas, short stories, and serialised novels that are based on everyday family issues, marriage politics and heterosexual love stories with happy endings. The Pakistani literary landscape has not yet accepted the extensive work of our women digest writers and the ways in which they have explored different genres. Nimra Ahmed’s novels, Jannat key Pattey (Leaves of Heaven (2012) and Namal (2014), were a huge commercial success. Family romances, thriller romances, and socio-religious romances published in the digests garner an enormous national and diasporic fan following, which grows when they are printed after their serialisation as stand-alone hardcover novels. These popular romance novels are often adapted for television series.


Regardless of its lowbrow reception, digest fiction rules as the most profitable publishing sector and boasts the widest circulation of genre texts. In my article for the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, I use the term ‘kitchen literature’ to describe Pakistani digest fiction because the kitchen is a space strongly associated with Pakistani digests and their readers in every city. This space has particular significance in the predominantly patriarchal Pakistani society as a site that defines gender roles in the upper-middle and lower-middle classes. It must be noted that romance narratives with a traditional happy ending usually gain the highest level of popularity and hook big media production companies. Some authors utilise romance plots of courtship and marriage to comment on social issues, but most popular narratives are celebrations of heterosexual love within the boundaries defined by patriarchal Pakistani society. Happy endings are popular and speak to us, yet we manage to undermine their significance. There are many Pakistani authors who go out of their way to distance themselves from genre fiction labels and strive to align themselves with literature with a capital L. Names of best-selling women authors like Umera Ahmed and Nimra Ahmed are often used as a cliché for all things lowbrow and meaningless in literary circles.


Genre novels written in English have more complicated reception rubrics. When the genre fiction published for the Western popular mass-market reaches a former British colony in South-Asia, the books lose much of their original coding, and their reception transverses between the literary and the middlebrow. The consumers of Anglophone genre fiction are mostly elite and upper-middle-class women residing in the urban centers, with a background of English-medium schooling. Pakistan is still not a place of production of English language fiction, even for the national market; instead, Anglophone novels are imported—legally and illegally —from Britain, Australia, and the United States. My doctoral research included observations of the retail ecosystem of Anglophone genre fiction in Pakistan and focused group discussions of Pakistani readers of romance genre.


A bookish behaviour I noted was the readers’ preference for Anglophone genre authors for leisure reading. This proclivity can easily be sorted as a colonial hangover, but it is more complicated. Most Pakistani authors writing in English publish their books outside the country to avoid association with genre fiction, and have general preference for tragic or happy-for-now endings when they write love stories. There are very few women who dare to write genre romance, and even fewer who are getting published in Pakistan. Humeira Ajaz’s Love Me and I’m Married to a Moron were both published independently. Karachi based author, Hina Shamsi’s cross cultural romance Love Knot has gained considerable readership. The only author who has successfully embraced genre romance is Sara Naveed. Both Shamsi and Naveed have published their books through Liberty Publishing House in Pakistan. Naveed’s recently published book The World Between Us sold all copies within the first three months, necessitating a re-print. So, rather than ignoring the allure of romance, we must move towards a better understanding of the dynamics of happy endings and think beyond the self-demarcated boundaries of literature and popular fiction


The July 22 digital edition of The Aleph Review aims to draw attention to the variety of ways in which popular fiction is written and published in Pakistan and outside Pakistan. Over the month, I will share an excerpt from the unpublished romance novel of Sara Naveed, as well as an excerpt from the unpublished sci-fi/horror genre novel of Omar Iftikhar. Also, Dr Vassiliki Veros will share her discussion on the place of genre romance fiction in the library. Overall, this month's digital pieces for Aleph will urge the readers and scholars to think beyond the established literary canons and explore the variety of themes, styles, and practices that traditionally lie outside literature. Genre fiction has emerged as a rich field of interdisciplinary research.


 

For Dr Javaria Farooqui's bio, click here.


About the featured artist: Sarah Mumtaz did her Bachelors in printmaking and later a Masters in visual arts from the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore. During her Masters she experimented in a completely different medium, performance art. In 2011 she did her first performance Everything Will Be Ok, at the Zahoor ul Ikhlaq Gallery at NCA. She has taken part in many residencies and performance shows, including a collaborative photographic cover with Nashmia Haroon for the cover of The Aleph Review, Volume 3 (2019). Her most recent was It too Shall Pass in collaboration with Gillian Rhodes.


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