Elif Batuman Answers Our Burning Questions About the State of the Novel

Elif Batuman Answers Our Burning Questions About the State of the Novel

Elif Batuman Answers Our Burning Questions About the State of the Novel

A conversation about her new book Either/Or, the limits of aesthetic life, and much more. 


Elif Batuman’s witty, searching, and relentlessly quotable Selin is one of the most memorable fictional protagonists in recent memory. Readers have followed Selin through Batuman’s 2017 novel, The Idiot, and a new sequel, Either/Or, as she navigated all kinds of physical and emotional terrain traveling from Cambridge, Mass., to Turkey. Having first met Selin as a freshman at Harvard, we reunite with her and begin the second leg of her story as she enters her sophomore year of college, off the heels of a disappointing and unfulfilling summer abroad in Hungary (“I hadn’t learned anything at all”). This was, in no small part, a result of her freshman-year e-mail love affair with a Hungarian senior named Ivan. Since its dissolution, Selin has grown more determined to crack the code of human experience and to understand, with humorous precision and analysis, what it will take to finally write a novel. For her, that includes Kierkegard, Fiona Apple, more e-mails, tears, and finding the elusive meanings behind “love” and “having sex”—all in the name of understanding the human condition so that she might write about it one day.

I spoke to Batuman ahead of the release of Either/Or about the state of contemporary fiction, the nature of an imagined love and its connection to the human experience, and why an aesthetic life is so limiting after all. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

—Najwa Jamal

Najwa Jamal: What are your thoughts on autofiction as a genre? How do you see your work fitting into recent trends in the contemporary novel? And how do you see The Idiot and Either/Or as being reflections of the fiction being written today?

Elif Batuman: I think there was always something that was a little bit shady when [critics] said that something was autofiction. It’s like, “Oh, this person is writing about this [character] who happens to have the same first name as them”—as if they’re being coy in some way. And I dislike that. I was put off by that, for two reasons. One is that I think that there is a massive cover-up about the extent to which all literature draws from the author’s personal experience. I think that there’s a tendency, especially in the US, to overvalue the extent to which writing a novel is an act of creative imagination—that inspiration comes to you from the sky, and it has nothing to do with anything. And if you’re truly original, then it doesn’t have to do with your life; it doesn’t have to do with what you read. And I think that that’s bogus. Literature arose [by pulling from life]—it’s a way of telling stories about the things that happen to us, and the things that we read and the interactions that we have. And they’re all in conversation with each other.

On the other hand, when I think about it, I wrote the draft of The Idiot when I was in grad school, [around] 2000, 2001. And I think that if there had been the idea of autofiction then—if I had thought that autofiction was a legit and marketable and OK thing to do, and if other people had seen it as a marketable thing to do—I might have been able to turn that book into a novel sooner. I think that I did, in the end, gain a lot from the designation of autofiction, because I also was kind of holding myself to the test of bringing some extra added value to literary creation that I now don’t see as necessary.

As for the broader trend, I have some thoughts about [that] too. I’ve just been thinking [about] the way creative writing was taught when I was in school 20 or more years ago: There was an idea that the best writers are these, like, virtuoso shape-shifters who can jump into any subjectivity and inhabit them. It was predicated on the idea that literature is generated by a small subset of all people. It’s not very democratic. There’s this little group of artists who have the ability to inhabit all other people’s subjectivities and who have kind of a duty to do it, because otherwise their literature is going to be arid and navel-gazing and all of the bad things that we’re told that autobiographical writing is. I wonder if this current crop of autofiction is sort of a result of people acknowledging how unequal the landscape is, and how it hasn’t really been acknowledged up to now. Maybe in the future, it will be easier and more attractive to write in a way that jumps subjectivities.

NJ: Was that your intention going into writing both of these books? In approaching Either/Or, did you go into it trying to bring light to a certain subjectivity?

EB: The decision to write Either/Or really came from thinking about The Idiot in the context of a particular time. And I was writing from a very different political place, and I was very conscious of having a really different political mindset as I was writing Either/Or than I did when I was writing The Idiot. I was asking myself: How did I get certain ideas about relationships and love? Why did I think that love was specifically something that happened between a man and a woman and involved penetrative sex and was the most important thing in the world and was universal, and was the universal content of novels, and that this was somehow not political? So, for me, it actually felt like an important, imaginative exercise to go back [to] then and to think, “Well, what did I read that made me think that? What did I know about feminism that made me think that it wasn’t for me? What did I know about lesbianism? What was it about my past and what I saw from my family that made me think that freedom was going to come for me in this one particular way, which was like a guy was going to rescue me into this romantic world of sex?” So I wanted to go back and [ask], “Well, what would make a person, a reasonable person, think those things?”

NJ: To what extent is Selin’s relationship to understanding the human condition dictated by a kind of heterosexual idea of love and intimacy?

EB: I was reading a lot of second-wave feminism for the first time, or even books like The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir—I had surely read parts of it in college, and I thought that I knew what it was about, but I didn’t really get it until I read it more carefully. I also read The Dialectic of Sex, where Shulamith Firestone talks about romance and literature as this ideology that’s dragged in when economics [or] laws basically aren’t enough to keep women inferior. They sort of bring in this extra, this new discourse of romance; [the ideology of] romance that’s been around for a really long time becomes stronger and stronger and develops new forms which serve to make women elect to keep themselves lower when the laws don’t make them [so] any more. I just hadn’t thought of literature that way. And then the essay that really blew my mind was “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” by Adrienne Rich, where she talks about how there’s this force that manifests itself in all these different ways. And some of them are very visible, and some of them are not visible at all, but it’s always working to wrestle women’s energies away from themselves and each other and towards men. And she’s not even talking about just sex. The richness of bonds between women is systematically devalued and made to seem less than the bonds that women can and should be having with men.

[This] really made me look at The Idiot differently. When I wrote The Idiot, I thought of Selin and Ivan, the love interest, as the main plot, and [Selin and Svetlana] as the secondary plot. And then, when I thought about it, the relationship with Svetlana is so much richer and more interesting, and there’s just so much more content to it. They see each other. They come so much closer to each other, to knowing each other.

I have a scene in Either/Or where Selin says to Svetlana, “Why can’t we just date each other?” And then they talk about it, and they just can’t, you know, for a whole bunch of reasons—from the nature and mechanics of sex itself to the way the culture caricatures lesbianism. And if you’re trying to avoid those things, you’re childish. And it’s really tied up to the ways that people—not just women—subjugate themselves in all kinds of ways.

NJ: I wanted to circle back to the idea that we began with, of what it takes to write a novel. Selin says that she was taught that “to be obsessed by your own life experience was childish, egotistical, unartistic, and worthy of contempt.” What does it take, in your eyes, to be a novelist? How have you found an answer to that through both of these works?

EB: One of the things that’s really holding Selin back is her belief that it’s shameful to think about herself—which, if you think about it, is a really antisocial, antihuman, and anti-literary way of thinking. I think that all of writing, whether you write about yourself or not, is thinking about yourself, being really honest. I have a friend who teaches writing, who says shame is the sticky coating around something that makes you realize that it’s worth paying attention to. Wherever you see shame, that’s [where] our natural desire is to skip that part—but actually, that’s where we should be going and looking for something interesting. And the interesting thing isn’t like, “So, what a shame.” It’s when you feel like, “Oh, I’m a horrible person—there’s something wrong with me.”

And that’s what’s interesting: looking at the forces that make those things happen and being able to see them [and] being able to write that idea. When I was editing, I was able to see this. When I wrote [The Idiot], I was 23, and I was writing about a time when I was 18, 19, and I was so ashamed of how basically I’d been chasing after this guy who was clearly not interested in me. But in addition to that, any number of things—like [all] the things I didn’t know and how awkward I was. And there were a lot of attempts in that early draft to distance myself from that character and to demonstrate, you know, “Now I’m so much smarter than she is. And you and I both know that this person is acting in a very foolish way.” And when I reread it at age 38, I no longer felt personally implicated by the stuff that this 18-year-old person was doing.

And being able to write Either/Or was quite similar. I didn’t get into the whole early experiences with sex—and [with] The Idiot, that wasn’t what that was about. But with some of the responses to The Idiot, there was disappointment that there wasn’t any sex. And I was thinking about it, and I was like, “Well, it wouldn’t have been wonderful.” I really wanted to go back and unpack, actually, what the early sexual experience was like for me and, as far as I know, for my closest female friends. And that was also something that I felt a lot of shame about. So it was a whole other kind of journey of removing shame and being honest.

For example, Proust writes about how the only insight that you can ever make is into yourself: thinking about your own mental state in solitude. The temptation to be involved with the world and to be part of some current conversation is a very strong temptation that’s just kind of your ego wanting to be involved—but you should actually be doing the more important work of interior exploration in loneliness and darkness, which is really difficult.

I mean, I don’t think that either way is true; I think there’s a lot to be said for both, and a balance is ideal. But I just love that formulation, because it’s the opposite of what we think about. We think, “Oh, writing about yourself is so selfish—and going and being like a war reporter is the most unselfish thing you can do.” And I think Proust would be like, “No. Of course you [can] be a war reporter and live this exciting life and be rushing around. But the really hard thing, and the really unselfish thing, is to be in a room, just excavating the horrible feeling that you had when you were 7.”

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