Smutty (by Wahhabist standards) romance novels are being permitted by Saudi authorities in an unsaid acknowledgment of the need for them to let off a little of the steam that has been allowed to build up in the pressure cooker of their repressive society.
Too little, too late -- however -- may be the operative paradigm.
Saudi Arabia has seen a literary explosion in the last two years after the success of "Girls of Riyadh," a taboo-breaking novel that this month went on sale worldwide in English.
Rajaa Alsanea's insight into the closed world of Saudi women and their disappointments in love caused a storm in the conservative Islamic state where the Beirut-published book was at first banned, although it is now available.
But strikingly, Saudi Arabia's literary output doubled in 2006, with half of the authors women, and publishing industry insiders suggest the growing interest is partly due to Alsanea's book, which centers on four women from affluent homes who must navigate a minefield of rules and taboos on sex, marriage and social caste to get and keep their men.
"I see 'Girls of Riyadh' as a turning-point for readership in Saudi Arabia," said Hassan al-Neimy, a short story writer who heads a group of Saudi literati called Hewar, Arabic for Dialogue. "The boldness of the book got women writing in the same style, publishing their own daily experiences."
Around 50 novels were published in 2006 compared with 26 in 2005, al-Neimy said. Exact figures are hard to establish since some were published outside Saudi Arabia and are hard to obtain.
Novelists publishing inside Saudi Arabia normally submit their work to the ministry of information in advance. Only a handful are technically banned, but many writers resort to Arab publishers outside Saudi Arabia and leave individual bookstores inside the country the choice of whether to risk importing them. ...
Critics have noted that sexual relationships dominate in the output of the new writers, with sensational titles such as "al-Hobb fil Saudiyya," Arabic for "Love in Saudi" and "Fosouq," which means "Debauchery."
One example is "al-Akharun" ("The Others") by a woman using the pen name Siba al-Harz. It has attracted attention because of its dark treatment of lesbianism, guilt and marginalization among Saudi Arabia's minority Shi'ite Muslims, as well as its sophisticated use of classical Arabic.
Al-Harz described the book as "a long response to pain and alienation" in an interview with an Arabic newspaper. ...
(T)he communications revolution since then has given a new push to literary expression, [one publisher] said. Saudi Arabia's native population has doubled since 1990 to 17 million, and official statistics show some 60 percent are under 21 years old.
"Society has been opened wide to changes outside the region. It's a generation that has opened its eyes to rapid changes and the novel is a reflection of these changes on society," he said.