Reading Elif Batuman's first book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (a collection of new essays and work previously published in The New Yorker, Harper and n+1) is, for the Russophile and uninitiated alike, a tremendously satisfying experience. Batuman deftly balances biting wit, light-hearted humor, historical research and fresh insight in essays that blurs the line between literary theory and personal memoir. She reads on Monday, March 15th at McNally Jackson in Nolita with n+1 editor Keith Gessen.
The L: In your book you say "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." How do you think your decision to pursue a PhD at Stanford after becoming disillusioned with a New England writers' colony affected how you write?
Elif Batuman: I used to think of fiction as the freest and least arbitrary kind of writing, because it wasn't constrained by facts. In graduate school, I gradually realized that historical truth has a special, fundamentally unforeseeable quality that's extremely difficult to invent—and in fact, when you try to invent it, it can come out sounding really arbitrary. Then it occurred to me that maybe fiction isn't so free or unconstrained after all. The human mind isn't capable of generating a string of random numbers... maybe it's also incapable of inventing the kind of unforeseeable beauty that sometimes characterizes historical truth. How to capture that quality in fiction is a real challenge—a challenge that memoirists and journalists don't face.
The L: Why does the choice between academia and creative writing seem so stark for young writers when in reality most great writers were also great students of literature?
EB: That's a good question. In the United States, where the choice seems particularly stark, I would explain it by professionalization/educational specialization: more and more aspiring writers find themselves at age 22 facing a choice between MFA and PhD. As a PhD student at Stanford, I was really surprised by how little contact there is between the two tracks: in my experience, the students don't hang out together, they read different books, take different classes, go to different lectures. The favorite writers of a literary studies student might easily be totally unknown to a creative writing student, and vice versa.