in conversation with Helen Stuhr-Rommereim
There aren’t many people who straddle the worlds of academia and journalism with as much ease and good humor as Elif Batuman. A Turkish-American writer, she recently gained fame chronicling her adventures as a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University in her first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. The book is a collection of essays about traveling, reading, academic conferences, relationship troubles, and the former Soviet Union. She continues to be a prolific writer of magazine pieces — her byline has popped up in the past year in the London Review of Books, the Paris Review, The New Yorker, n+1, and The New York Times, to name a few. I started keeping an eye out for her writing after I read The Possessed, which made me laugh out loud so often that I ended up having to read it aloud to whomever was around me. In Batuman’s hands it almost seems natural that a conference on Isaac Babel might leave you giggling and in tears.
Humor aside, it’s refreshing to have someone young, smart, and entertaining who is garnering attention for simply writing about how much she likes books. The Possessed concludes, “If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.” After finishing The Possessed, I was nearly convinced to jump into a PhD in literature, and I don’t imagine I’m the only one.
I was lucky enough to get to spend some time with Batuman at Koç University on the outskirts of Istanbul, where she is currently a writer-in-residence. We talked about her plans for her next book, her thoughts on contemporary fiction, and what exactly is so funny about academia.
What are you working on now?
I’m on contract for the first time with The New Yorker, rather than being a freelancer. It’s different because they help me come up with ideas, rather than me pitching and hustling. The last story I did for them was about football fan culture, which is not a story I would have come up with on my own. It was interesting to do something like that, kind of out of my comfort zone and also out of my interest zone. But it is a complicated culture, and something like that is always going to be interesting if you can force yourself to figure it out a little bit.
I haven’t had time to start another book. I do have some ideas that I want to play around with. By the time I got the contract for the first book, about half of the essays had already been published. I haven’t had the experience of sitting down and writing a book from scratch. I want to play around more with fiction and non-fiction. I wanted The Possessed to be fiction, actually, so I could take more liberties with it. But because it is based on true stuff there was a lot of pressure for it to be non-fiction, and when it is your first book, you have to do what you are told.
Do you have any more concrete plans for the next book?
Well, I have been thinking about how a lot of the writers that I know are incredibly good email writers and a lot of the time I find their emails more compelling than the things they are writing at the time. It is connected to this thing that I quoted from Chekhov in The Possessed, about how everyone has two lives and one is the open one that is known to everyone and one is the unknown one, running its course in secret. The email is kind of the unknown life, and the published writings are the known life. This is something that I tried to do in The Possessed, especially in the “Ice Palace” piece. I tried to take the piece that I wrote for The New Yorker and fill out the human dimension that didn’t make it into the New Yorker story. I want to go back to some of the stuff that I wrote, and fill in the personal story that contextualizes it. Otherwise, you have this New Yorker journalist, a professional dilettante, who is just going from thing to thing to thing, and none of them are connected to each other. When you’re lucky enough to like your work it’s a huge part of your thinking. And one of the things that I really like about the classic novel is that it shows you all of the layers of thought that people have; their job, their marriage, their friends and their thoughts about politics are all woven together. But I want to write more about sex in this one; I think sex is a really big problem that people don’t acknowledge enough. And I wasn’t able to do that in The Possessed because it was non-fiction.
So a fiction book will actually expose more about your personal life?
Yes. It is so bizarre to me that the first way that you describe a writer or a book is fiction versus nonfiction. How are those the most important categories? It doesn’t make any sense at all. It is very clear that, like A Million Little Pieces, if you write a fiction book and call it nonfiction there are all kinds of problems. But what is the problem if you write a nonfiction book and call it fiction? That is just what novelists did until 75 or 100 years ago. Now it seems like if it is fiction you are expected to invent all this stuff, which some people do. For example, I think Jonathan Franzen really just pulls all that stuff out of his head, which is incredible. But that is just not the kind of writer I am, it’s not a good use of my time to make stuff up.
Speaking of Jonathan Franzen, you wrote an article in the London Review of Books a while ago that was pretty critical of contemporary fiction. But you have also said in interviews that you really like Franzen, as well as some other writers, and you recently wrote a very complimentary piece about Jennifer Egan’s new book, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Can you define what those writers are doing that is overcoming what you see as the pitfalls in contemporary fiction in general?
Freedom didn’t have a lot of the characteristics that I associate with workshop fiction. He kept a small number of characters and went into those characters really thoroughly. There was no overwrought creation of nostalgia out of nothing. The dialogue was really good, and there were not a great number of minor characters to keep up with. It was about how to reconcile sex with some kind of daily life, which is an issue I’ve been thinking about a lot. A lot of thought and anguish went into the thinking through of that problem. You find anguish in what I think of as workshop fiction, but there is an assumption that everyone already shares this anguish and knows what it is and it is really ironic. But he really did the legwork and showed you what is so terrible about everything.
Jennifer Egan’s book had a lot of the characteristics of what I typically think of as workshop fiction or New Yorker short stories, and it took me a while to get into the book. It keeps introducing all these characters with stupid names and stupid idiosyncrasies. They are living these depressing, pointless lives that don’t seem like they are being investigated that much. And then somehow these little stories, where the character’s flaw would be how closed off they are from being human, come together and resonate in a really brilliant way. In a way I think it is a much more formally radical and interesting book than Freedom. It will be interesting to see what she does next. People have been doing the novel through short stories or the short story cycle for a while, it’s not like she invented that. But I think she did something really different with it. She set out to write a story about time, to write a Proust-like book in short stories, and then she did it. There is something really affirming about seeing a big ambition executed well and succeeding.
In your book, a lot of the essays are very funny pieces about academic conferences, like “Babel in California.” Do you think you can find a particularly large amount of comedy in Russian literature scholarship, or can you get those same kinds of stories from any discipline?
I wonder about that a lot. I’m not sure because I haven’t spent much time in other disciplines. My guess is that you can find funny stories in any discipline. But a lot of what attracted me to Russian literature was that the same thing is funny and sad at the same time. It isn’t like Dickens where some things are incredibly funny and other things are melodramatic and tragic. Things are funny in this melancholy way. You turn the object around and see the funny side of it. People who go into studying Russian literature are particularly attune to that, so I think it’s possible that particularly funny things happen.
But in my knowledge of academics, they are all pretty funny. They are all kind of marginalized from real life, and they are all aware of that. They are very self-reflective, and where there is self-reflectiveness and breadth of reading there tends to be humor. It isn’t a hard and fast rule. You meet plenty of humorless academics, especially in older generations and in other countries. But American academics have a pretty good sense of humor, and they aren’t that inhibited. If they want to do something crazy they will just go ahead and do it.
But literary academia is especially funny, and especially the study of the novel. The novel is all about this comic disjuncture between books and reality. How could you have a job that embodies that more than being a scholar of the novel? You are in the world as a person but your job is studying. It is a very comic situation, but also sad. It is like the Russian novel, sad and funny at the same time.
In The Possessed you describe one student simply as someone who studied “unreliable narrators.” Just to describe a person by the one, extremely specific thing they have devoted their lives to studying, is quite funny — and also tragic.
Yes, and yet perfectly true. Until you think of putting it in those terms it is perfectly normal. Everyone has a specialty. But when you think about answering the question “What do you do in life?” An answer like “I study this disease of the white blood cells,” or “I study unreliable narration” is very funny.
A guy on the Dostoevsky round table I was on recently was talking about how you can never believe what Dostoevsky’s underground man says because he is the only person you have access to and you don’t know whether it’s true or not. And then someone in the audience said “Yeah! In this way it’s very similar to Erasmus because you can’t tell what’s true!” It was like they discovered unreliable narration right there in front of my eyes. It was completely weird. The whole literature culture in Turkey is weird because everyone is such a generalist.
How has it been living in Istanbul? What have you been thinking about and writing about here?
I don’t really feel like I’m living in Istanbul because I’m in this office all the time, and then I work here until late, and miss the bus that goes home, and then I walk home through this forest for 25 minutes. I feel more like I’m living in the country of squirrels than the country of Turkish people. I don’t go downtown very much. When my residency ends I want to move downtown somewhere. I have a few friends and people who I know who are in the literary scene, and it seems like interesting stuff is happening. And even if interesting stuff isn’t happening, people think interesting stuff is happening. In Russia now people think the good days are all behind us. Journalists are being treated like crap, the atmosphere is getting uglier and uglier, and the gap between rich and poor is bigger and bigger. Compared to that Turkey seems like a place where people are still optimistic about literature and culture, and I’d like to see what they’re optimistic about.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to be a writer?
For me, [writing] is about turning off the censor that says you are writing something bad, so stop writing. It’s like going to the gym. Once you go to the gym you never regret that you went to the gym. Once you sit down and write, even if you can tell that what you’re writing is bad and isn’t leading anywhere, the cognitive act of moving sentences around is making you a better writer. You just have to remember that and not censor yourself. And in writing non-fiction there were a lot of times that I was imagining the various annoying voices in my head of people who would be offended that I’d written that or annoyed that I’d written that. Learning to turn that off was useful in a broader sense. You have to make sure that it is just you and the computer screen and other people aren’t going to come into it until later.
Then the flipside of that is that it is also really helpful to think of your writing as something you are telling to someone. One of my favorite books I’ve read recently is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, because it was written as a letter. It reminded me of this children’s book that I re-read in New York when I was visiting my mother, From The Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. It’s written by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, from her to her attorney, nominally about the provisions that have to be made in her will. But it’s actually the story of the attorney’s grandchildren who ran away from home to stay in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and solved an art mystery. It is written to a very particular person, in the same way that Gilead is written to a very particular person. I think it is such an arbitrary convention to write to the public. Even when you have a book that is written in first person, who is really writing to the public? I thought that it was restoring a very important lost component of writing, to be writing to a specific person. I’ve been trying to think about that more. It’s something my editor told me when I was working on The Possessed. He said, “I think you should be writing this for my mother. My mother already loves this book, but she doesn’t know that she loves it. If you keep using words like ‘over-determined’ she is never going to know that she loves it.” It was about taking out the jargon without dumbing it down or removing the theory. That was actually really useful.
Russian literature is currently such a large part of your life, scholarship and writing. Do you think you’ll ever get tired of Russian literature?
Absolutely! I absolutely think I will. When you write a book and promote a book, you really aren’t an expert on anything except having written that book. In my case it was very small and idiosyncratic book that did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of very much of anything, but they have to make you an expert on something. You find yourself on this cycle of festivals, and I was on all of these panels about Russia with Sheila Fitzpatrick and Pavel Basinski and these great guns of Slavic studies. So I imagine that my next book is not going to have very much to do with Russian literature, and then there will be another slot to put me in. I don’t think I will go down as an expert on Russian literature for very much longer.