Elif Batuman on Writer’s Block, the Shame of Youth, and The Idiot, Her Great Novel About the Magical Early Age of Email

Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

The narrator, heroine, and titular numbskull of Elif Batuman’s first novel The Idiot is Selin Karadag, a six-foot-tall, New Jersey–born daughter of Turkish immigrants who arrives as a freshman at Harvard in the fall of 1995 and spends a year connecting and failing to connect with a cast of kooks before decamping impetuously for a summer teaching English in Hungarian villages.

The bit about the kooks notwithstanding, that also describes the teenage Batuman. In real life, Batuman graduated from Harvard in 1999 with a degree in Russian literature, earned a Ph.D. from Stanford in comparative literature, made a splash in the lit world with a series of essays in the then-nascent journal n+1, was picked up as a staff writer by The New Yorker, and spent several years as a teacher and foreign correspondent in Istanbul. In 2010, she published The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which collected essays she’d written for n+1, The New Yorker, and Harper’s. It was an unlikely best seller: FSG had bought it as a paperback original for an advance of $7,500, a sum that doesn’t come with high revenue expectations.

It was also part of a wave of books by young writers — think of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, or Eula Biss’s On Immunity — that has constituted a new golden age for the American essay. Then Batuman switched to writing fiction — which, she told me on a recent Friday afternoon at her apartment in Bed-Stuy, was what she’d been intending to write, trying to write, in fact writing, all along.

This wasn’t news to those of us, like me, who knew Batuman in college but knew her first through her writing for the Harvard Advocate. (I’ve also worked with Batuman as one of her editors at Harper’s and the London Review of Books.) And one thing The Idiot conveys masterfully is the feeling of the awkward age of 18, something it has in common with novels like Philip Larkin’s Jill and the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Another is more unusual, and particular to the mid-1990s: the discovery of email. On the first page of The Idiot Selin gets her first account. Picking up her Ethernet cord, she asks her roommate, “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” Indeed, it was an innocent time, long before the coming of Wi-Fi, social media, and the rest of the digital labyrinth we now think of mostly in terms mundanity, pathology, or profit:

“There was another world. You could access it from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape, and looked no different from regular computers. Always there, unchanged, in a configuration nobody else could see, was a glowing list of messages from all the people you knew, and from people you didn’t know, like the universal handwriting of thought or of the world. Some messages were formally epistolary, with ‘Dear’ and ‘Sincerely’; others telegraphic, all in lowercase with missing punctuation, like they were being beamed straight from people’s brains. And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you—all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your live with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time.”

What constitutes somebody’s real life? What’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction? Why is The Idiot and not some other book Batuman’s first novel? This is what Batuman and I talked about in her kitchen after a long walk around the neighborhood. Her watch said we took 6,000 steps. At the end of the walk she said that reading the news about the president every day is like having to hear constant updates about your friend’s troublesome infant, except the president is causing suffering on a historic scale. We agreed not to talk about him when we turned on the digital recorder.

The Idiot isn’t the book you proposed to Penguin when they signed you up as a novelist. What happened to that one?

It’s still there! I still want to do it. It’s called The Two Lives, after a phrase in Chekhov. It’s about a Turkish-American journalist in her 30s, a lot of it is set in Turkey, and it’s more difficult book than The Idiot — it’s more political, it has a lot more compromises in it. I worked on it for three years. But as I wrote, this weird thing happened. I kept adding flashbacks. I’d get to the next chapter and be like, “Well, if you really want to know where it all started, it was here.” And that point just kept receding further into the past.

By 2015, it was overdue, I was really stressed out, I kept reading about publishers making authors return their advances because they took too long to write their books. Still I couldn’t stop writing flashbacks. They just went further back. At some point I found myself writing a flashback where the main character was in college. So then I was sitting there at age 38, trying to remember what college was like.

That’s when I had the idea of looking up this old novel draft I wrote in 2000, when I took a year off from grad school. A lot of it was about my experiences in college. I hadn’t looked at it in a really long time, because I knew it would be super-embarrassing. But I figured I would just take a quick look, just to find some details about college life to copy-paste into The Two Lives.

As I read through the file, I automatically started tinkering with it. It was so absorbing. The writing was really easy to improve, too, because it was so, uh, I guess youthful. It was really embarrassing and painful in certain ways, but I also felt all kinds of stress I’d been having just somehow lifting off me. With The Two Lives, I’d been finding it really hard to think of the narrator as not me, as not my nonfiction narrating voice. But this old manuscript was about someone who clearly wasn’t me, because she was 20 years younger than me — she was a kid. So working with that story really felt like fiction.

And then, as I was going through it, this strange thing happened. I started to see resonances with the story I was trying to tell in The Two Lives. Even in this story I’d written 15 years earlier about this very innocent, ignorant person, there were resonances or figurations of the same difficult adult compromises I’d been trying to write about. And I realized then that for whatever reason I had to finish that book first — that it was sort of a prequel.

When you say it was embarrassing are you talking about the experiences recorded or the writing on the page?

Both. The two things are related. At the time of writing, I was 23. I was living what I thought was this really adult life in San Francisco, where my boyfriend worked in a computer lab and I cooked every night. I was writing about what a misfortune it is to be young, from this point of view of great wisdom and distance. When really I was 23 and my prefrontal cortex wasn’t done developing. So the writing itself was really embarrassing.

The content, also, was all about awkward, embarrassing experiences. That’s what the book is about. Now I don’t think I’ll be pulling the veil from anyone’s eyes when I reveal that I myself had many such experiences at age 18. This was something I was really ashamed of at the time. And I found that, in between the scenes of awkwardness and embarrassment, there was this whole intervening tissue of a more savvy person with a certain critical vocabulary, and an influence of — I’m not sure what, maybe Donald Barthelme. Look, it was practically the ’90s — it was 2000, 2001, I’d had one year of comp-lit in grad school, so you can imagine it. It would go into second person like a video game. That was super-embarrassing to reread.

Ugh I’ve been talking forever. But it’s to set up this very subtle irony that I hope you’re appreciating. You see, when I was younger, the content was embarrassing to me, so I devised a style that was supposed to mitigate it. As an adult, the thing I found most embarrassing was the very style that I thought would mitigate the embarrassing content! And the only parts I really cared about, now, were the immediate visceral descriptions of what it felt like to be in those situations.

So revision was a matter of letting the stuff that I felt was embarrassing before just be there by itself. I realized when I wrote the first draft I was too anxious to prove, “I’m not actually as stupid as this person is acting in the book.” That was wrong and unnecessary. That’s why I ended up calling it The Idiot. I realized the embarrassing parts were the most moving to me.

Did the rewriting involve some enhancements of humiliation for Selin?

No, I don’t think so. It didn’t feel sadistic. It felt compassionate. I actually don’t know if I would have been able to go back to Selin in that way if I hadn’t started therapy. A lot of her experience that I thought was really humiliating at the time — when I looked back now, it didn’t seem shameful. It just seemed like a picture of a really young person who is well-equipped in certain ways and not well-equipped in other ways. I didn’t feel shame. I felt compassion. One thing I did change were Selin’s interactions with people who are the age that I am now, like her professors.

There’s more than one professor whom Selin calls stupid.

Well, she takes everything they say at its face value, which is not how the world works. So yeah, the book is not always super-sympathetic to the older people. I think I toned it down a little bit though.

There are two points in the book where Selin intrudes from the point of view of many years later. There used to be a lot more, “Oh, when we’re young we’re so foolish and when we’re older we realize …” That was one of my editor’s comments. She said, “Either make that perspective the frame, or if I were you I would just take it all out.”

So, I took it all out. I just left it in those two places. One of them has a joke about Marguerite Duras that I thought was funny. I was just like laughing too much at my own joke to take it out, and my editor was like, “Okay, you can leave that one.” And the other is the scene where they’re eating the Awesome Blossom at Chili’s, and I Googled the Awesome Blossom and saw that it had been named the most unhealthy dish in America and taken off the menu, and I found that both funny and historical, so I mentioned that, too.

How did you hit on the book’s form, diaristic sections of less than or just over a page?

Some of it was based on diaries that I kept. Even in the first draft, it was never written in chapters, it was more in irregular chunks. None were less than a page, because I didn’t think that was an option for a novel. I mean I didn’t want to write a super-formal form-bending novel where one chapter is a haiku and the next chapter is in the form of a phone book. I wanted it to be something you could sink into without having your head exploded. And then I read Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, and Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, and they had sections that were as short as one sentence, without losing a kind of conversational readability, without seeming ostentatiously formal. That really made an impression on me.

A lot of the revision was cutting, and in some places there would be a whole scene or section I wanted to cut, with just one joke in it that I thought was funny, or one line that I thought was evocative. There was one long section that I thought wasn’t really necessary, but it had this one line I liked, about how only one typographer in all of Paris could decipher Balzac’s manuscripts. That line somehow really brought me back to the moment, to the moment of being in a lecture class and thinking, “Huh, so is that what knowledge is.” So then I thought, “What if I just cut that whole section except for that one line, would that look super-pretentious?” I asked two people, and they both said, “I can see how someone might think it’s pretentious, but I don’t think it’s pretentious.” So I left it in.

Do you think some would call Selin pretentious?

Well, that’s a theme in the book. Selin and Svetlana have this conversation about it — whether you can be sincere without being pretentious. It’s something Selin thinks about a lot. It’s like there are two poles: one is being totally lucid but not conveying anything, just stating completely obvious things, and the other is being completely impenetrable. Sometimes you have to risk going one way or the other. Selin decides she would rather risk being impenetrable than being obvious and lame. I do think that’s a real tradeoff in writing, and maybe in life. When I sometimes saw Selin go too far in the pretentious direction, I left some of that in there, because that’s what happens. You overshoot sometimes — that’s part of it.

Then there’s a matter of Selin’s first acquisition of email which also essentially coincides with the invention and adoption of email on a mass scale for everyone. I was there at the time — we probably got our first email accounts on the same day.

Within hours probably. Yeah, email enabled a whole new kind of pretentiousness. Part of what Selin likes so much about Ivan is that he writes these pretentious things, about clowns and hell and insanity, without even caring that they’re pretentious. It’s like, that’s how committed he is to expressing what he wants to say. That’s how it seems to Selin. He writes these long emails, that are really specific and cryptic at the same time, and it’s like, all those things were waiting there in him and all she had to do was write to him and he would tell her. That’s something I remember being really exciting when email was new. It felt like email made manifest this whole side of everyone that you just never saw before, because there was no email to manifest it.

What was it like moving from nonfiction to fiction?

When I wrote the first draft, I thought I had to fictionalize my own experiences a lot more. In real life, I did teach in a program in a Hungarian village. But for some reason, I thought I couldn’t say that in the book. I thought I had to disguise it in some way to protect the village.

At that time, I happened to read a story on the website of an anthropology department of a Hungarian university. The department had set aside the money for a team of grad students to go to Africa, to live in a village and study some kinship structures. But they weren’t able to go. They couldn’t get visas or something. So instead they made an African village in the Hungarian countryside, and had graduate students try to replicate those kinship structures there. I thought that was amazing.

At that same time, I read Karl May for the first time, and learned about how some European people and Marxists were obsessed with Native Americans. So in the first draft of the novel, I combined those two things. Instead of having Selin go to an English language program, I invented a Hungarian anthropology department that was studying Native American culture by simulating it in the Hungarian countryside, and having American college students coming over to help, which was completely absurd. It was unwritable. That was where I abandoned the first draft.

It’s not common for a successful nonfiction writer to switch to writing novels.

From an early age, my favorite thing to read was novels. For years when I was writing only nonfiction, still I was reading almost exclusively novels. It’s weird to be producing something that you don’t consume. It feels really alienating. The first thing I tried to write was a novel, when I took that time off in grad school. Then I didn’t finish it, I went back to school, and then I started writing nonfiction kind of by accident.

There was this conference about Isaac Babel at Stanford that I really wanted to write about. The thing I wanted to write was going to be about Babel’s actual writing, about the scholars who were trying to write his biography, about his actual mysterious and tragic life, about how I picked his relatives up from the airport, and also about some other stuff that was going on in my own life. Just then n+1 magazine started, and Keith Gessen, one of the editors, asked if I could write something for them. I described the piece I wanted to write — I was thinking it would be a long short story, or a novella. But Keith said, “Oh, that’s an essay — that’s what essays do.” So I wrote it as an essay, and that was the first thing I published. And you know how it goes when you publish something. If you’re lucky, you get asked to write something else, and the thing you get asked to write is some form of the thing that you already wrote, so I got on a nonfiction track.

Once you get involved in journalism, you tend to keep doing it. It’s less obvious economically how to be a fiction writer unless you enroll in an MFA program.

I did always try to pitch novels. I pitched The Possessed as a novelistic retelling of Dostoevsky’s Demons set in a Stanford-like comp-lit program. And everyone said, “That’s an awful idea.” And then Lorin Stein who became my editor said, “Well, if you do it as a nonfiction book, then people might read it because they hope to learn about the plots of Russian novels.” Like it would be a time-saving device for people who didn’t have time to read the novels themselves.

It was a forerunner in the genre that’s come to become the bibliomemoir.

Yes, like the Rebecca Mead one about Middlemarch. But you know, I don’t actually see any formal reason why you can’t have a biblionovel — why you can’t learn the plots of Russian novels just as well from another novel as from a nonfiction book. Why can’t the novel do the work that people now think is the purview of essays? It seems really arbitrary and historically contingent, because when the novel first appeared, it was this new combination of all different genres, including the essay.

With the Babel piece, I thought at the time, “Oh, if I write about it as fiction, then I have to do what Philip Roth does in The Prague Orgy, I have to make up a fake Babel-like character and invent the brilliant short stories that he wrote. I’m a busy woman. I don’t have the time for that, and anyway I want to write about Babel’s actual stories — that’s the whole point.” I thought that if I wanted the real stories to be an object in my text, I had to call it nonfiction. Now that I have a little more freedom, I don’t really feel I have to do that, and I don’t see why that has to be the rule.

I don’t want to say I don’t care about the truth, or I don’t think the truth is important. There’s a million reasons you might want something you write to have a certain truth status. But I can also think of reasons why you might not want to make a particular truth claim. The story might be more important to you than whether or not it happened. That’s what I think fiction is. I don’t think it’s a sworn statement that nothing in the book is real; I think it’s a statement that whether it’s real or not isn’t the point.

The extent to which it’s real might be interesting to a reader. As a reader, I’d love to know how much of Babel’s Petersburg stories are true and how much he made up. But I don’t feel like that curiosity on my part has to be accommodated in the genre, because there are all kinds of reasons why people might not want to say every single thing that did or didn’t happen to them.

For instance, it might be boring.

Oh my God, so boring!

There’s a kind of built-in frustration in The Idiot that is at once enhancing the tension but runs the risk of perhaps being so frustrating that it becomes possibly boring.

Yeah, definitely.

What was it like dealing with that in the process of composition?

Well, I worked really hard to make the book fun to read, to keep all the frustration on the level of plot. Some parts of the book that are really carefully plotted, and other parts are more episodic and deliberately non-plotted. But in the whole book I worked really hard on the style and the rhythm, on keeping the number of jokes and delightful or surprising observations up there, because for me that’s what makes a book not boring, more than the plot. I really wanted to give readers the feeling like, “Okay, I don’t know what is going on with this plot, but on a sentence level someone is still looking out for me — I’m not just being drunk-driven around by a crazy person.”

There actually is a reason for all the plot-level frustration, because one of the things I really wanted to explore in this book was the feeling of falling outside of narrative. This was something I experienced for the first time in college. The narrative quality of life, my ability to see my life as a story — for whatever reason, this was always something that I really wanted to have — would just sometimes disappear. I’ve also had episodes of depression in my life, and those things are connected. For me, a lot of depression is just not being able to see any kind of a story that you’re in. It’s the same with a breakup. One of the most painful parts of a breakup is having the feeling that your life is a story, and then the other person leaves and takes the story with them. And you’re left there without it. You’re left in this version of life that’s basically a succession of events and interactions that don’t seem to be going anywhere.

That’s how I think of the Hungary part of The Idiot. Selin gets there in a linear way, following this narrative thread that Ivan offers. But then it doesn’t lead where she thinks. It leads to this proliferation of Hungarian people, with their own different thoughts and problems. Some of them want things from her, others offer her things, some of their interactions are funny or moving or unexpected or sad, but none of them really corresponds to any of the stories she’s been telling about herself. She can’t figure out what the point is, or where she went wrong. But she can’t just abdicate, either. She feels kind of an ethical responsibility to listen to what they’re saying, to “be a good sport,” to do a good job teaching English.

I do think of The Idiot in a way as a self-standing book, about a certain struggle to make meaning, the struggle for a girl to find meaning outside of the romance plot. I have started working on a sequel. Some of the things that don’t happen in The Idiot are a direct motor for what happens in the next book.

Elif Batuman on Writer’s Block and the Magic of Early Email