This week, Deputy Events Editor Julia Tolda and Deputy Editor Lillian Rountree had a conversation with Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist and Adjunct Associate Professor Elif Batuman.
Either you know someone who has read The Idiot by Elif Batuman at Barnumbia or you yourself have. The Idiot, for which Batuman was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist, and its sequel Either/Or follow Selin Karadağ, a Turkish-American undergraduate at Harvard in the 1990s during her freshman and sophomore years. This semester, Batuman has been teaching a creative writing course at Barnard. Though decades, miles, and the division between fiction and reality separate us on campus now from Selin and her world, the absurd, confusing, and comic coming-of-age experience of college remains the same. We discussed this idea, The Artist’s Way, and the hot consequences of a permanently running radiator in the interview below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lillian Rountree: How has your experience teaching at Barnard been so far? How did you end up teaching creative writing here?
Elif Batuman: It’s a visiting, one-term thing as far as I know. I’m friendly with Ken Chen, who asked me if I could do it. I’m loving it. I hadn’t taught since 2014.
In 2014, The Idiot and Either/Or hadn’t come out. I hadn’t written Either/Or and The Idiot was somewhere in the ether. It’s been really exciting after going back to that time in my own life of being a student to be in a room with 13 people who are in that period now.
Julia Tolda: The Idiot and Either/Or could be called campus novels. How do you feel about that description?
EB: It wasn’t a plan to write a campus novel, but when I wrote the first draft of The Idiot—it’s based very closely on my own events for my own first year of college—I wrote the first draft a few years after that when I was about 23. At that time, I just thought I was writing a book about life. I was not able to finish it for a lot of reasons, and in different days I’d have different explanations for it. I came back to it in my late 30s. By then I had been a professional writer for 10 years, so I could see it more as a piece of writing and less as a mediated record of life. It doesn’t exactly fit in the campus novel genre, but the campus novel is the form that it violates. It has to be a campus novel first, then at the end, it kind of goes off the rails. It starts in September and it ends at the end of the next summer. It has this very clear school year time frame.
JT: It has resonated so strongly with college audiences, especially at Barnard. What has it been like to be an author of a book that so many students love and adore while being a professor?
EB: It’s been a sheer delight. The one student-related thing that made me uncomfortable was the year that it came out, it was mandatory for Brown undergraduates to read. Every single person in the freshman class had to read it. I knew some people were going to hate it, like with any book. When I wrote The Idiot, I was back in the spirit of my college self that was resentful of all the narratives that were being foisted on me. I know that that’s how it works. The people who wrote, whatever Romantic poets that you’re forced to read now, were experiencing themselves as pushing the boundaries of the human condition and now you sit in a classroom and you have to read it and you’re like, “I’m in a prison.” To have that happen to me and to have that book be assigned and to be aware that people are going to read it and be annoyed… I remember talking to my therapist about it and he suggested, maybe some people are going to read it and have a really wonderful experience, and it’s going to help them sort out questions and feelings that they’re having about that time of their own life. And I was like, yeah, maybe. But some people are going to throw it across the room. And he responded, “Well, that’s for sure!” Recently someone from the Brown school paper reached out and said they’re part of this class where they had to read The Idiot as freshmen. Now in their senior year, Either/Or came out and there’s this group that keeps talking about it. We were talking about that and she said her whole experience of it was being broken up into these groups where they had to write 500 words about it. The main reaction of the people and the group were just, they found Selin really annoying. It’s not surprising, but it’s still hard to hear. So thank you for saying that it has resonated with students. I’m sure both things are true.
JT: If you’d known about this reception that you’ve received, both the good and the bad, do you think you’ve done you would have done anything differently?
EB: The instinctive answer is no because it doesn’t feel like one has a lot of control. The book that you write is the book that you can write. For me, it was figuring out what that book was and that’s how The Idiot ended up happening. I don’t know what I could have done differently. On the other hand, I do feel like Either/Or is in a lot of ways a product of conversations that I had about The Idiot and things that it made me think. It’s not exactly that I decided I had to write a book that was more what people wanted, but just that their responses to The Idiot clarified thoughts that I had about The Idiot that I hadn’t completely articulated to myself.
LR: You mentioned earlier that it is interesting to be back on a college campus. What does it feel like to have lived the college experience, written about it, and now return to that environment?
EB: I did a PhD program where I was there for a long time. I was there for seven, eight years. You’re teaching alongside it, and I stuck around and I taught for three years after that. I did some teaching after that, but the bulk of my teaching experience was being taught by professors and having these interactions with your dissertation committee and these relationships with your students. Something that was in my head from that time was that you have to have some professional barrier between you and the students. I had this idea that the teacher’s job is to frustrate the students. It’s Socratic: don’t tell them what they want to know, ask them another question. Selin is often quite frustrated with that. I’ve been questioning that more. Now when I’m teaching, I feel so much affection for the students. I think that if that had happened when I was in my 20s or my 30s, I would have resisted it. Whatever reasons that people have for why being mean is important in an institutional setting, I feel that less and less. It’s a huge relief.
LR: Before this interview, we were looking at the praise for The Idiot at the beginning of the paperback version.
EB: There are some negs in there. Why did they put some of those things in there? In the paperback, there is one quote that says, “This is not the kind of book that will keep you up all night.”
LR: The first quote says your novel is “roaringly funny.”
EB: Did you roar?
JT: I wouldn’t say so. It’s hilarious, but I would giggle.
EB: A measured giggle.
LR: I bring it up because of the praise from the New York Times Book Review: “Long after I finished The Idiot, I looked at every lanky girl with her nose in a book on the subway and thought: Selin.” It reminded me of a question I wanted to ask. Do you feel like you see your protagonist, Selin, here on campus?
EB: I was talking to a friend of mine. She asked how teaching was going and I immediately started telling her about all the different things that people were writing.
I was explaining the artist dates and a problem that I hadn’t anticipated. Julia Cameron talks about how every week, you have to take two hours and do something that’s a date with your inner child because your inner artist is an inner child. It can be going to a junk store or art store or museum. You can’t bring anyone else. It has to be time just for the inner child. I asked my students to report back, and a problem that I hadn’t anticipated was that a lot of the artist dates, they were trying to accomplish stuff.
I was telling my friend, they’re exactly the way that I was. They applied to the class and I chose them and they all really remind me of myself. I think part of why I wrote those books was to get back in touch with that moment, where you’re reading really strikes you with this immediacy that it doesn’t necessarily continue to do 20 or 30 years later. It’s been a privilege to hang out with people who are still in that state. I do see a lot of differences that come from growing up with social media and a later stage of the internet and the understanding of the economic landscape, but overall, the sensibility feels very kindred to me.
I don’t know about “the lanky girl with her nose in a book.” That sounds kind of objectifying to me. She can look however she looks. Her nose is her nose.
JT: It can be wherever she wants it to be!
JT: What sort of experiences do you find important for college students to have in general in their time at university? What experiences were most valuable to you during your time?
EB: Traveling abroad alone was a hugely valuable experience for me, even though it wasn’t part of campus life. This time you can take abroad to experience a completely different way to do things becomes much harder to have later in life, to pick up and go somewhere else. So I would say to anyone who has the opportunity to travel abroad to take it.
Letting go of the idea that there’s a particular right thing that you should do, a particular wrong thing that you should do. Trusting more in yourself, and if you like something, that’s a sign that it’s good and it’s good for you. I grew up with this idea that if you like something, it’s a sign that you shouldn’t do it. That things have to be hard or there has to be suffering involved for it to be art. And I increasingly think that that’s not true.
LR: Sexuality is a big factor in The Idiot and Either/Or. You’ve said in previous interviews that your own understanding of queerness and sexuality particularly impacted Either/Or, and I would love to hear you speak to that a bit more.
EB: I was working on The Idiot during Me Too, and there was a lot of revisiting of the 90s that went along with that. Then, I wouldn’t have used terms like rape culture and patriarchy. I used the term sexism a lot, but I didn’t really think about it being structural or related to my experience. I thought I was tremendously liberated in comparison to my mom’s generation which had to deal with “real” discrimination.
Consent wasn’t talked about in those days in the same ways that it is now. While writing Either/Or, I thought it was super important to articulate all of the kinds of non-consensual sex that have been going on in different forms. But another question that’s at least equally interesting to me is “What are the ways that we consent to our own oppression?” It is an idea that I got after reading “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” by Adrienne Rich, and The Dialectic of Sex, by Shulamith Firestone.
When I was that age, I thought everyone else was brainwashed, and I was viewing everything in this critical individualistic Western modern way. Part of Either/Or is the questioning of Western knowledge and romantic individualism.
Shulamith Firestone talks about romantic individualism as something that actually supports the patriarchy. After the economic bases for women’s oppression are taken away, you need to create a system where women are choosing their oppression. Romance is designed to make it seem hot.
Adrienne Rich talks about how women’s energies are diverted away from themselves, and their relationships with women and redirected toward men. She writes that, in great works of literature, we learn that even when women’s attraction to men is rash, suicidal, or results in death, like in Tristan and Isolde, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, it’s still presented as an organic imperative.
And it really made me rethink my favorite books, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and Eugene Onegin by Alexandre Pushkin, which I didn’t see as instruments of patriarchal oppression because they are ironic. They’re critiquing ideology. But it made me start to think about how irony actually can hold up the ideology, too. Did reading those books and taking them to heart, the way that I did, close off political possibilities for me, and how did that play out in my actual dating life with men? Those were the questions I was trying to answer.
And that is something that is different for students now, there is a lot more queer consciousness. That was not really the case, that was not how I experienced the world when I was in college. Another question I had was, why didn’t queerness or lesbianism even occur to me back then?
At this point in the interview, the heat in Barnard Hall becomes unbearable. Elif Batuman climbs atop a bookcase in an attempt to open the window.
EB: If I die, you got my last words on record.
JT: We will cherish them forever.
Elif, Julia, and Lillian struggle with the window for a couple of minutes. It does not budge.
EB: Forget it. We gave it the college try.
LR: This is very much the Columbia campus experience.
They all sit.
JT: Now that you are a professor here at Barnard, I thought it would be fun to ask you the classic application questions! First of all, why Barnard?
EB: New York City is a wonderful place, and I think it’s really exciting to be at a historically women’s school. That’s something that I wrote about in Either/Or. At the end, Selin realizes that she’s never been to Wellesley, and she’s like, wait, what’s the deal with it? I wasn’t that conscious of women’s spaces when I was younger, and I feel really lucky that I get to spend this time here with this vibe now.
JT: The second question is, if you could have a meal with any woman dead or alive, who would you choose, and what would you talk about?
EB: I kind of want to talk to Shulamith Firestone, but I want 25-year-old Shulamith Firestone when she was still hopeful. Or do I want to nerd out with Virginia Woolf?
LR: Virginia Woolf is a very classic answer.
EB: I’m sure.
JT: If you could teach your dream course, and have the syllabus be as many pages long as you’d like it to be, what would you teach?
EB: Are we in a parallel world where reading doesn’t take time? I don’t want to torture others or myself. But it is really fun to read huge novels together. My favorite classes in grad school—there was one where we just read all of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and it wasn’t even a semester because it was on the quarter system. We had this crazy chart of what pages to read in the French edition and the English edition. I remember reading with these maps and what an incredible experience that was. It was freakish, but it is really fun to cruise through a lot of material together. It would be nice to do a big 19th-century novel class.
LR: We’re students and writers. Do you have any advice to 20-somethings like us, writing?
EB: Write as much as you can, and that’s the most important thing. I think the most reliable solution to problems in writing is to find a way to make the problem part of the thing that you’re writing about. Write it into it somehow and it can be kind of a puzzle. Don’t be demoralized by writing stuff that comes out bad, because it happens to literally everyone. There’s no way to bypass that. I always talk about the first draft of Anna Karenina. It’s been published, an early, early version, and it’s not good. Tolstoy didn’t get this skip that.
A lot of what holds me back in writing, and I think this is true for a lot of people, is seeing something that you wrote and feeling shame about it and being like, “Why am I wasting my time? What’s the point of this, or who’s asking you to do this?” Doing stuff that people aren’t asking you to do is a radical act because everything is set up to make you only do things that are monetized and that are viewed as productive. Writing is critical and it’s getting in touch with yourself and that’s something that if everyone did, the system would be in trouble. So it’s important for us to do it.
JT: Are there any books that you would recommend to us at this stage?
EB: For me, the books that rocked my world recently are the essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality” by Adrienne Rich and The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone. The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir, which is quite tough. Skip the parts that don’t make sense, but there are parts in it that are really incredible. And The Second Sex—I felt like I knew what The Second Sex was about. I’d read little pieces of it, yet somehow when I returned to it in my 30s to 40s, I found that it was a huge surprise to me. So I somehow had metabolized it. That’s a book that’s definitely worth spending some time with.
Header via Bwog Illustration
Editor’s Note, November 12 at 2:55 pm: Edits have been made to protect an individual’s privacy.