In 2006, Elif Batuman published a polemic called “Short Story & Novel” as part of a symposium in the little magazine n+1. The piece was an acidly witty attack on the state of American literature, which Batuman viewed as fatally damaged by, among other things, the influence of creative-writing workshops. American fiction writers, she argued, were afflicted by a puritanical sense of guilt about producing literature, a sense of cultural superfluousness that could only be appeased by mortifying oneself and one’s work through the adoption of a painstaking and disciplined artisanal approach. “Guilt leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence,” Batuman wrote. “Writers, feeling guilty for not doing real work, that mysterious activity—where is it? On Wall Street, at Sloan Kettering, in Sudan?—turn in shame to the notion of writing as ‘craft.’” Rather than turning out the long, unapologetically discursive novels of Batuman’s beloved 19th-century Russians, or even the formally and psychologically ambitious experiments of the modernists, contemporary fiction writers now gravitate to the short story and produce “constipated ‘vignettes’—as if to say: ‘Well, yes, it’s bad, but at least there isn’t too much of it.’”
Batuman, at the time she published her n+1 essay, was a graduate student at Stanford studying comparative literature, and she was clearly nostalgic for an age when “large, loose, baggy monsters,” to borrow Henry James’s famous description of the 19th-century novel, roamed the earth. Novels, she argued, are messy and excessive by nature, and this is precisely what makes them such exquisite instruments for the recording of everyday life. American writers, with their workshop-mandated obsession with precision, concision, and perfection, had lost touch with the form’s potential to capture the vagaries of human experience. “A short story says, ‘I looked for x, and didn’t find it,’ or ‘I was not looking anymore, and then I found x,’” Batuman explained. “A novel says, ‘I looked for x, and found a, b, c, g, q, r, and w.’” It was part of the novel’s genius that it made room for the extraneous and the unplanned: “The novel consists of all the irrelevant garbage, the effort to redeem that garbage, to integrate it into Life Itself, to redraw the boundaries of Life Itself.” A certain formlessness, in Batuman’s estimation, is intrinsic to the form: That is how it keeps pace with the chaos of life.
A little over a decade after her brief on behalf of the novel, Batuman has at last published one of her own. The Idiot, like her 2010 essay collection The Possessed, borrows its title from Dostoyevsky, signaling that she hasn’t abandoned her allegiance to the 19th-century tradition. Its protagonist, Selin Karadag, is a Turkish-American woman like Batuman, and The Idiot chronicles her freshman year at Harvard, where Batuman also went, in the mid-1990s.
It’s not surprising that Batuman—who has made her name as a memoirist and staff writer for The New Yorker—has written an autobiographical novel; another of her claims, back in 2006, was that “American novelists are ashamed to find their own lives interesting.” Nor is it surprising to find her displaying a sly sense of humor about academia. The Possessed is one of the best books ever written about being a PhD student: Part memoir, part literary criticism, and part travelogue, it surveys the arcane culture of graduate literary study with a Nabokovian mix of affection, contempt, and respect. Most of all, it thrums with a sense of rerouted passion, of devoting your time and energy to something slightly adjacent to what you’re supposed to be doing with your life.