Reviews — From the March 2017 issue

No Fool

Elif Batuman takes on the M.F.A.

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Discussed in this essay:

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman. Penguin Press. 432 pages. $27.

Elif Batuman is not a fan of M.F.A. programs and the kind of writing they tend to produce. She laid out her objections to “program fiction” in a 2010 essay in the London Review of Books:

Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun.

The occasion for this polemic was a review of The Program Era, Mark McGurl’s history of M.F.A. programs and their influence on American writing. Program fiction’s most troubling limitation, Batuman wrote, was its deliberate detachment from the canon. An English Ph.D. student studies literature, a project that entails both an engagement with the books of the past and a collaborative effort toward the accumulation of knowledge. A creative-writing M.F.A. student, by contrast, studies fiction. As McGurl writes, this requires “not a commitment to ignorance, exactly, but . . . a commitment to innocence.” Innocent first-person narrators fumble through their fictional worlds; innocent writers, oblivious to the innovations of previous eras, continually reinvent the wheel of literary technique. The result, Batuman wrote, is “a pure vessel for inner content.” No canon, no context required.

“Untitled,” a photograph by Chema Madoz © The artist. Courtesy Robert Klein Gallery, Boston

“Untitled,” a photograph by Chema Madoz © The artist. Courtesy Robert Klein Gallery, Boston

She was already on record as an M.F.A. skeptic. In 2006, Batuman wrote an essay for n+1 in which she condemned what the ethos of the workshop — prioritize specific, “crisp” details, “murder your darlings” — had done to contemporary short fiction, the way it valorized prose that had been “pared down to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns.” Even novels now seemed either to mimic the short story’s well-pruned brevity or, at least, to harbor the same fundamental belief that writing was “a form of self-indulgence and vanity.” Hence the elaborately apologetic self-awareness of writers like David Foster Wallace, or the unimpeachably serious subjects of Dave Eggers (cancer) and Michael Chabon (the Holocaust). What lay behind all these changes? For Batuman, the answer was guilt.

Writers, feeling guilty for not doing any 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.” (If art is aristocratic, decadent, egotistical, self-indulgent, then craft is useful, humble, ascetic, anorexic — a form of whittling.) Craft solicits from them constipated “vignettes” — as if to say: “Well, yes, it’s bad, but at least there isn’t too much of it.” As if writing well consisted of overcoming human weakness and bad habits. As if writers became writers by omitting needless words.

Such an approach, she argued, was a betrayal of literature, and especially of the novel, which consists — or ought to consist — “of all the irrelevant garbage, the effort to redeem that garbage, to integrate it into Life Itself, to redraw the boundaries of Life Itself.”

Batuman was, in effect, offering justification for her own choices, which she describes in The Possessed (2010), a collection of essays subtitled Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. After graduating from college, Batuman wanted to write a novel, a task for which she knew she’d need time and money. She saw two paths forward: literary scholarship and creative writing. She applied to Ph.D. programs and to an artists’ colony on Cape Cod, but her visit to the Cape left her dispirited. “Why,” she wondered, “was it automatically good for a writer to live in a barn, reading short stories by short story writers who didn’t seem to be read by anyone other than writing students?” She got a Ph.D. in comparative literature instead — a “real degree,” as the title of her LRB review put it.

Now Batuman has made good on her original intention. The Idiot, her debut novel, tells the story of an aspiring writer’s first encounter with the academy. Like The Possessed, it is a book about books — its title, also lifted from Dostoevsky, suggests the incorrigibly intertextual nature of the author’s imagination. A loose, baggy monster, full of irrelevant garbage and needless words — and all the richer for it — the book implicitly makes an argument for what a twenty-first-century novel might be.

It is also written against program fiction’s preoccupation with identity. Batuman captures a moment when the smart daughter of immigrant parents might go to an Ivy League school and manage to not feel particularly concerned about questions of gender and ethnicity, and reach the age of eighteen without having gained any sexual experience, not because of any moralistic repression but because she grew up considering her worth in entirely separate terms. Selin Karadag, The Idiot’s protagonist and narrator, was raised in New Jersey by Turkish parents, just like the author. She, too, enrolls at Harvard in the mid-Nineties with a plan to study linguistics and is drawn instead to Russian. She is something of an outsider, and yet this seems less a matter of identity than of what Batuman has called “novelistic alienation,” the realization that “lived experience doesn’t resemble literature.”

In contrast to the program fiction that Batuman deplores, The Idiot is self-consciously steeped in literature. Books, from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to Dr. Seuss, are Selin’s lens on the world and on herself. In her first-semester introductory Russian class, she encounters Nina in Siberia, the story of a young Soviet physicist who is unlucky in love, which uses only concepts and grammar that are covered in the course. “What Slavic 101 couldn’t name didn’t exist”: it’s a world of manageable communication, free from the unfamiliar vocabulary and temporal ambiguity that can make everyday language so treacherous. As the students’ expertise grows, so does the complexity of Nina’s world — a process that mirrors the growing emotional and intellectual complexity of Selin’s own world.

Selin wants to be a writer — indeed, she feels that she already is a writer, although this conviction is “completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.” She is naturally a talented, eccentric observer of physical details and other people — a heap of long underwear at Filene’s Basement becomes “a pile of souls torn out of their bodies,” a classmate’s contorted posture reminds her of a cruller — but words are tricky. When Ivan, a tall senior from Hungary who is in her Russian class, brings her to a bar and proposes a second round, she is dismayed: “I thought getting ‘a drink’ meant you only had to have one drink.” Like Dostoevsky’s idiot, Batuman’s possesses a naïveté that is a source of both uncommon insight and uncomfortable ignorance. This may sound similar to the program ethos that regards innocence as a quality to be guarded, but Batuman makes her protagonist’s condition an obstacle to be overcome. For Selin, ignorance is a source of shame, and in contrast to the self-stymied program writer, she confronts that shame head-on. She wants to learn her way out.

Selin may know she doesn’t like the taste of beer, but in other, more important ways, she remains uncertain about her own preferences. What does she want? What does she think? She’s not sure. Selin watches her female peers, especially her new best friend, Svetlana, with wary fascination: “Where did they get so much confidence, and so many opinions, and such complicated dresses?” She herself is almost perversely bad at getting dressed: she buys shoes that look like they’re made of “waterlogged cardboard,” a shapeless overcoat that reminds her of Gogol’s. The project of dressing is wrapped up in the performance of femininity, an undertaking that baffles Selin. (“What made her a girlfriend?” she wonders, looking at a photo of Ivan’s ex.) But it’s also a problem of self-presentation, of confronting the notion that other people see you differently than you see yourself.

Selin is excellent at seeing others, even as she struggles to imagine how they might see her. Although she can be obtuse, she is more often painfully sensitive; her efforts to understand the world, to absorb its lessons, are earnest and tireless. Early in her second semester, she visits a math class that Ivan is T.A.-ing:

To see Ivan standing in front of a blackboard was somehow terribly embarrassing. And yet, you were supposed to look at him — that’s why he was there. There was something puppet-like about how he paced back and forth, wrote on the board, and flung out his arm to point at what he had written. His shirt had come untucked at the side. He was working really hard. He used the word “suffer” three times. I couldn’t remember any other instructor mentioning suffering even once all year.

Ivan is trying to explain open and closed sets. Selin looks on as he draws a house, a chimney, and an enormous cloud of smoke. “The house is inside the world,” he says. “You can be inside the house or outside the house, but you can’t leave the world.” Selin thinks:

“Is there smoke in the house? If it’s not suffocating, I will stay indoors; if it proves too much, I’ll leave. Always remember — the door is open.” That’s what Epictetus wrote about suicide.

Next to the house, Ivan drew a stick figure. The head was level with the chimney. In Turkish, if you said, “Her head hasn’t reached the chimney yet,” it meant she was still young enough to get married.

“Is he outside or inside?” said Ivan. “You see, he’s outside the house, but inside the world.”

At the end of class, I left immediately, before the clock tower finished striking ten. I was inside the world, but at least I was outside that room.

Evoking Selin’s combined acuity, anxiety, innocence, horniness, and erudition, the scene shows how she proceeds at all times with her sense of scholarship intact. The classroom provides her occasion to confront the problem of desire — she brings both her reading and her personal history to bear on the matter at hand. Selin is a self-consciously literary heroine, and Harvard, with its well-trod cobblestones, is, like the literary canon, “both new and familiar.” In Batuman’s view, integrating the new and the familiar, the personal and the canonical, is precisely what the novel ought to do. But this integration isn’t simply an intellectual process; it’s what happens in all coming-of-age stories. When, in the book’s one sexually explicit scene, Selin describes the sensation of masturbating with a handheld showerhead, she also finds it “both new and familiar.”

For all her literary ambition, Selin is, for the time being, a writer primarily not of fiction but of emails. These are new to her; she didn’t even know what email was before she got to Harvard — although, as she says, she “knew that in some sense I would ‘have’ it.” The medium seems to offer new narrative possibilities: “It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated and you could check it at any time.”

When Selin first sends Ivan a message, it’s spontaneous, almost inexplicable. They’ve spoken a few times, in and around class, interactions that Selin has catalogued without assigning to them any definite importance. Naturally, she seeks literary guidance: her initial email adapts a letter from Nina in Siberia. “Ivan! When you receive this letter, I will be in Siberia,” she writes. Ivan replies a day later: “Dear Selin, I had a strange dream.” He describes it. He makes some jokes about Siberia. He asks her to tell him about the Russian soap opera they’re supposed to watch for class.

Selin is stunned by the response she has elicited: “When I saw Ivan’s name in my in-box, I felt a jolt and realized I had been hoping all day he would write to me.” She has to read and reread his message to understand it; the words make sense, but the whole is “some other language.” Nonetheless, a correspondence begins. Ivan hates small talk and Selin is incapable of it, so they proceed straight to meditations on history, language, math, dreams, free will, and the limits of human communication. Ivan is older and worldlier, but it’s Selin who escalates the relationship by telling Ivan that she’s falling in love with him. The emails they exchange are small, doughty ships carrying human personalities. That they should convey their cargo successfully seems miraculous. “In his physical presence,” Selin reflects, “it was impossible to believe that he had written me those emails.”

At the end of the school year, Selin follows Ivan to Hungary for the summer, where she teaches English in a program run by one of his friends, but sees little of Ivan himself. Her time in the village (presented garrulously, in a style similar to the travels recounted in The Possessed) is entertaining, if messy. Selin is alive to the events around her, but she also senses herself losing the narrative thread that carried her through the school year — she’s not entirely sure what she’s doing anymore. At one point she laments that Hungary feels “increasingly like reading War and Peace”: new characters appear “every five minutes,” specific and inscrutable, then vanish. Readers of The Idiot may sympathize. As idiosyncratic Hungarians continue to materialize, it begins to feel as though Batuman is giving us an object lesson in distinguishing between the tastefully modest craft of fiction and the ungainly ambition of literature.

At first, Selin wishes that her relationship with Ivan were more like reading: “I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book. I didn’t even know what kind of story it was, or what kind of role I was supposed to be playing.” And yet it is through their correspondence that Selin begins to understand herself as a writer. Her desire for his attention and approval is not strictly romantic; it’s also literary. He is her first reader.

The emails begin to distract her from her studies, leaving her to question their actual value. “Why was it more honorable to reread and interpret a novel like Lost Illusions than to reread and interpret this email from Ivan?” Selin wonders. She has identified some basic unit of sensitivity and imagination that will be required as she becomes both an adult and a writer: the ability to imagine what others are thinking, and how they might understand her. Using words to bridge this human divide requires a certain loss of innocence and terrifying new acts of self-exposure, but the reward is an intimacy of equals.

What Selin feels as she pores over her inbox is probably not so different from what another young writer might feel in an M.F.A. workshop. Both are experiencing the shock of sending their words into the world (a small corner of the world, at least) and gauging the world’s response. Both will have to learn to transcend their immediate circumstances — having a face-to-face conversation with Ivan, addressing an audience beyond fellow M.F.A. students. For now, though, their task is to confront the ordeal of being read.

In The Program Era, McGurl suggests that the hothouse drama of the workshop and the prevalence of a college education among writers of the postwar era have been responsible for the newly pervasive sense of shame in American fiction. In her review of the book, Batuman expanded on the argument she’d put forth in n+1, claiming that this shame was symptomatic of a culture that saw writing as self-indulgence. But even without the culture of craft, a novice writer faces a crucial moment of post-Edenic shame when she realizes that being a writer means letting someone else read what she’s written. Shame is not the fault of the writer’s workshop; it is the inevitable starting condition to be overcome.

Batuman is virtuosic in articulating the internal workings of this moment. Her compassion for the agony of those attempting to forge a connection through words is perceptive, intelligent, and funny. In The Idiot, she has heeded the rallying cry she issued in n+1: “Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things. Dear young writers, write with dignity, not in guilt. How you write is how you will be read.”

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