The Chronicle Review

Confessions of an Accidental Literary Scholar

Frank Fournier for The Chronicle Review

Elif Batuman, New York, January 2010
February 07, 2010

Elif Batuman has written for n+1, Harper's, and The New Yorker and teaches literature at Stanford University. She writes in her new book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, that the title is "borrowed from Dostoevsky's weirdest novel, The Demons, formerly translated as The Possessed, which narrates the descent into madness of a circle of intellectuals in a remote Russian province: a situation analogous, in certain ways, to my own experiences in graduate school."

Graduate school changed her thinking about a lot of things, she writes in The Possessed, which chronicles her own education as a writer—her adventures in reading and thinking about books and writers, both inside academe and out. Among her discoveries is that she has the wild soul of ... an academic. "What if you read Balzac's Lost Illusions," she writes, "and, instead of moving to New York, living in a garret, self-publishing your poetry, writing book reviews, and having love affairs­—instead of living your own version of Lost Illusions, in order to someday write the same novel for 21st-century America—what if instead you went to Balzac's house and Madame Hanska's estate, read every word he ever wrote, dug up every last thing you could about him—and then started writing?"

That, says Batuman, was the idea behind her book.

The summer of 1995, after my last year of high school, I discovered a 1970s Penguin edition of Anna Karenina in my grandmother's apartment in Ankara, Turkey. I had run out of English books, and was especially happy to find one that was so long. Think of the time it must have taken for Tolstoy to write it! He hadn't been ashamed to spend his time that way, rather than relaxing by playing Frisbee or attending a barbecue. Nobody in Anna Karenina was oppressed, as I was, by the tyranny of leisure.

I spent the next two weeks flopped on my grandmother's super-bourgeois rose-colored velvet sofa, consuming massive quantities of grapes, reading obsessively. Anna Karenina was a perfect book, with an otherworldly perfection: unthinkable, monolithic, occupying a supercharged gray zone between nature and culture. How had any human being ever managed to write something simultaneously so big and so small—so serious and so light—so strange and so natural?

Looking back, by that point I had already acquired certain ideas about literature. I believed that it "really meant" something, and that this meaning was dependent on linguistic competence, on the Chomskians' iron law: "the intuitions of a native speaker." That's probably why I decided to study linguistics when I got to college; it didn't even occur to me to study literature. I remember believing firmly that the best novels drew their material and inspiration exclusively from life, and not from other novels, and that, as an aspiring novelist, I should therefore try not to read too many novels.

I was also uninterested by what I knew of literary theory and history. It was a received idea in those days that "theory" was bad for writers, infecting them with a hostility toward language and making them turn out postmodern; and what did it have to offer, anyway, besides the reduction of a novel to a set of unpleasant facts about power structures, or the superficial thrill of juxtaposing Pride and Prejudice with the uncertainty principle? As for history, it struck me as pedantic, unambitious. Why all that trouble to prove things that nobody would ever dispute in the first place, like that an earlier author had influenced a later author?

In fact, I had no historical consciousness in those days, and no interest in acquiring one. It struck me as narrow-minded to privilege historical events, simply because things happened to have worked out that way. Why be a slave to the arbitrary truth? I didn't care about truth; I cared about beauty. It took me many years—it took the experience of lived time—to realize that they really are the same thing.

In the meantime, I became a linguistics major. I wanted to learn the raw mechanism of language, the pure form itself. For the foreign-language requirement, I enrolled in beginning Russian: Maybe someday I could answer my mother's question about what Tolstoy was really trying to say in Anna Karenina.

The nail in the coffin of my brief career as a linguist was probably a seminar I took that winter about the philosophy of language. The aim of this seminar was to formulate a theory that would explain to a Martian "what it is that we know when we know a language." I could not imagine a more objectless, melancholy project. The solution turned out to consist of a series of propositions having the form "'Snow is white' is true if snow is white." The professor, a gaunt logician with a wild mane of red hair, wrote this sentence on the board during nearly every class, and we would discuss why it wasn't trivial. Outside the window, snow piled deeper and deeper.

By contrast with the philosophy of language and my other classes in psycholinguistics, syntax, and phonetics, beginning Russian struck me as profoundly human. I had expected linguistics (the general study of language) to resemble a story, and Russian (the study of a particular language) to resemble a set of rules, but the reality was just the opposite.

At every step, the riddle of human behavior and the nature of love appeared bound up with Russian. This association was further strengthened when I myself fell in love with one of my classmates, a math major who had briefly studied Russian as a child behind the Iron Curtain. He was a senior, and was going to spend the summer in Budapest before heading to Berkeley for graduate school. I was only a freshman, so clearly, after June, we were never going to see each other again—except that then he somehow got me a summer job with a philanthropic organization that sent American college students to teach English in Hungarian villages.

When I got back to school that fall, I couldn't face linguistics again—it had let me down, failed to reveal anything about language and what it meant. But I kept studying Russian. It seemed like the only possible place to look for an explanation for the things that had happened to me. I even signed up for an accelerated class. Two years later—without, incidentally, having read more than seven or eight novels—I found myself about to receive a degree in literature: after folklore and mythology, the major with the fewest requirements.

Among the not very numerous theoretical texts I read as a literature major, one that made a strong impression on me was Foucault's short essay on Don Quixote in The Order of Things, the one that likens the tall, skinny, weird-looking hidalgo to "a sign, a long, thin graphism, a letter that has just escaped from the open pages of a book." I immediately identified with this description because elif, the Turkish word for alif or aleph—the first letter of the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets—is drawn as a straight line. My parents chose this name for me because I was an unusually long and skinny baby (I was born one month early).

I thought of Foucault's essay again when I recently came across a psychological study showing that Americans tend to choose careers whose labels resemble their names. Thus the name Dennis is statistically overrepresented among dentists, and the ranks of geoscientists contain disproportionately high numbers of Georges and Geoffreys. The study ascribed these phenomena to "implicit egotism": the "generally positive feelings" that people have about their own names. I wonder whether some of the Dennises in dentistry school ended up there by a different motivation: the secret wish to bring arbitrary language in tune with physical reality. Maybe that's why I was drawn in by Don Quixote: It gave me a way to fulfill the truth of my name in the world's terms. It would be fitting, since this is the point of Foucault's essay: Don Quixote decides to prove that he is a knight just like the knights in chivalric romances, and that the world he inhabits is likewise a forum for proving heroism, and so he sets out to find—or create—resemblances between the word and the world. "Flocks, serving girls, and inns become once more the language of books to the imperceptible degree to which they resemble castles, ladies, and armies," writes Foucault.

Don Quixote, I realized, had broken the binary of life and literature. He had lived life and read books; he lived life through books, generating an even better book. Foucault, meanwhile, broke my idea of literary theory: Instead of reducing complexity and beauty, he had produced it. My interest in truth came only later, but beauty had already begun to draw me into the study of literature.

My plan for after graduation was still to write a novel—but writing novels takes time, and time is expensive. I took the precaution of applying to some Ph.D. literature programs. I did not consider getting a creative-writing M.F.A. because I knew they made you pay tuition and go to workshops. Whatever reservations I had about the usefulness of reading and analyzing great novels went double for reading and analyzing the writings of a bunch of kids like me. I did, however, send an application to an artists' colony on Cape Cod. To my surprise, they offered me a fiction-writing fellowship, on the basis of a 75-page first-person narrative I had written from the perspective of a dog.

One extremely windy and rainy day that March, I rented a car and drove to Cape Cod, to see just what kind of outfit these people were running. The colony was located on the grounds of a prerevolutionary lumber mill. I made my way over a muddy wooden footpath to a boatlike building, where a man was making a video recording of a machine apparently designed to pour concrete onto the floor out of a vat. When I asked him where the writers were, the artist waved his hand at the window, at the teeming rain.

I located the writers in a trailer, huddled around a space heater, wearing plaid shirts and plastic-rimmed glasses. The program director, a windswept, gray-eyed local writer of romantic appearance, treated me with remarkable kindness, especially considering my status as the 21-year-old author of a first-person dog novella. Nonetheless, we weren't on the same page. Our priorities and our worldviews were not synchronized.

"What will you do if you don't come here?" he asked. I told him I had applied to some graduate schools. There was a long pause. "Well, if you want to be an academic, go to graduate school," he said. "If you want to be a writer, come here."

I wanted to be a writer, not an academic. But that afternoon, standing under a noisy tin awning in a parking lot facing the ocean, eating the peanut-butter sandwiches I had made in the cafeteria at breakfast, I reached some conclusive state of disillusionment with the transcendentalist New England culture of "creative writing." In this culture, to which the writing workshop belonged, the academic study of literature was understood to be bad for a writer's formation. By what mechanism, I found myself wondering, was it bad? Conversely, why 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?

I turned down the writing fellowship. The director of the writing colony sent me a postcard with a photograph of a sailboat on it, wishing me luck. My boyfriend at the time had been offered a job designing intelligent radar detectors in Silicon Valley, and I had been offered five years of financial support in the comparative-literature department at Stanford. We moved to California, a place I had never been before. Under rolling green hills, positrons were speeding through the world's longest linear accelerator; in towers high above the palm trees lay the complete Paris files of the Russian Imperial secret police. Stanford was essentially the opposite of a colonial New England lumber mill.

For many years, I gave little thought to the choice I had made between creative writing and literary criticism. In 2006, n+1 magazine asked me to write about the state of the American short story, using the Best American Short Stories anthologies of 2004 and 2005 as data. Only then, as I turned the pages in the name of science, did I find myself remembering the emptiness I had felt on that rainy day on Cape Cod.

I remembered then the puritanical culture of creative writing, embodied by colonies and workshops and the ideal of "craft." I realized that I would greatly prefer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: "Show, don't tell"; "Murder your darlings"; "Omit needless words." As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.

I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns—like entries in a contest to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words. The first sentences were crammed with so many specificities, exceptions, subverted expectations, and minor collisions that one half expected to learn they were acrostics, or had been written without using the letter e. They all began in medias res. Often, they answered the "five W's and one H."

The premium on conciseness and concreteness made proper names a great value—so they came flying at you as if out of a tennis-ball machine: Julia, Juliet, Viola, Violet, Rusty, Lefty, Carl, Carla, Carleton, Mamie, Sharee, Sharon, Rose of Sharon (a Native American), Hassan. Each name betrayed a secret calculation, a weighing of plausibility against precision: On the one hand, the cat called King Spanky; on the other, the cat called Cat. In either case, the result somehow seemed false, contrived—unlike Tolstoy's double Alexeis, and unlike Chekhov's characters, many of whom didn't have names at all. In "Lady With Lapdog," Gurov's wife, Anna's husband, Gurov's crony at the club, even the lapdog, are all nameless. No contemporary American short-story writer would have had the stamina not to name that lapdog. They were too caught up in trying to bootstrap from a proper name to a meaningful individual essence—like the "compassionate" TV doctor who informs her colleagues: "She has a name."

But names don't work that way. As Derrida once wrote, the singularity of the proper name is inextricable from its generality: It always has to be possible for one thing to be named after any other named thing, and for different people, like the characters in Anna Karenina, to be called by the same name. The basic tension of the name is that it simultaneously does and does not designate the unique individual. As someone who likes to keep to a minimum her visits to Planet Derrida—that land where all seemingly secondary phenomena are actually primary, and anything you can think of doing is an act of violence, practically by virtue of your having thought about it using some words that were also known to Aristotle—I nonetheless felt that Derrida had been right about names. More important, he had really thought about names, about how special they are, so that, even if Of Grammatology was more painful to read than the Best American Short Stories, still it belonged to a discourse that tried to say something about what things mean.

Moreover, even if the literary-criticism discourse is no less susceptible than the creative-writing workshop to charges of self-sufficiency and hermeticism, it has one crucial advantage: its fundamentally collaborative premise. Each work of criticism is supposed to build upon the existing body of work, to increase the sum total of human understanding. It's not like filling your house with more and more beautiful wicker baskets. It's supposed to be cumulative—it believes in progress.

The creative-writing workshop, by contrast, seems to have a collaborative premise, and does indeed involve a collaborative process—but the signs of that process are systematically effaced from the finished product. Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past 20, 50, or 100 years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things.

I don't know if I ended up siding with the academics just because I happened to end up in graduate school, or if I ended up in graduate school because I already secretly sided with the academics. In any case, I stopped believing that "theory" had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn't the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?

This isn't to say that graduate school was one long walk in the park, especially not at first. I did have the good fortune to strike an immediate friendship with one of my classmates, Luba, a Russian émigré who had grown up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I feel very lucky to have met such a wonderful person at that delicate point in my career. In between sessions of a seminar on an obscure school of 1920s Russian filmmakers, known for their "eccentric" use of circus paraphernalia and human-size rubber mannequins, we would take long walks around the graduate-student housing complex, invariably getting lost, and once even falling into some kind of a ditch. Like Thomas Mann's hero in his first weeks on the Magic Mountain, I thought: This can't last much longer.

In fact, between classes, conferences, teaching, and endless lunches, it became clear to me that I wasn't going to get anything but term papers written at Stanford. At the end of the year, I filed for a leave of absence and moved to San Francisco where, between odd jobs, I wrote a great deal. Nonetheless, the result somehow wasn't a novel. It didn't have a beginning or an end. It didn't seem to be telling any particular story. This was surprising and difficult for me to understand. It had occurred to me to worry in advance about writer's block, but the production of a huge non-novel just wasn't a possibility I had anticipated.

I was thinking over the problem on the evening of September 13, 2001, while running to the Golden Gate Bridge, when I tripped over some kind of plastic barrier, erected, I later learned, with the intention of protecting the bridge from terrorists. Some other joggers helped me to my feet. My arm felt very strange. I walked to the nearest hospital and spent some hours in the waiting room, where a ceiling-mounted television showed endless footage of bodies being excavated from the World Trade Center. Eventually I was admitted to the emergency room, where doctors removed the gravel from my knees, X-rayed my arm, informed me that my elbow was broken, and outfitted me with a cast and sling. The bill came to $1,700.

This experience caused me to take a cold, hard look at the direction my life was headed. What was I doing, running around this world—a place about which I clearly understood nothing—with no health insurance and no real job, writing an endless novel about God knows what? A week later, the department head called and asked if I wanted to return to Stanford. I said yes.

Elif Batuman is a lecturer in the department of interdisciplinary studies in the humanities at Stanford University. This essay is adapted from her book "The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them," to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this month. Copyright © 2010 by Elif Batuman.