New Yorker writer Elif Batuman puts an absurdist twist on the campus novel in a smart, funny and fresh fiction debut, which follows an endearingly awkward 18-year-old through her first year at Harvard and a summer studying abroad. As Selin makes friends, follows her academic calling and pursues her first crush via email in the pre-smartphone era of 1995, readers will be charmed by her vivid observations, unique voice and vulnerable heart. We asked Batuman a few questions about her somewhat autobiographical first novel.
Your first book was a collection of essays on Russian literature, and also took its title from Dostoyevsky. What appeals to you about Russian writers and how did that influence The Idiot?
Yes, my first book was a collection of interconnected comic essays about Russian literature called The Possessed. Later, I was trying to write a novel about someone like me, who had also written a collection of interconnected comic essays about Russian literature, only in her case, it was called The Idiot. I didn’t end up finishing that novel, but I got really attached to the idea of someone writing a somehow autobiographical book called The Idiot. Last year, I started revising an old novel I had abandoned some time ago, about the embarrassment of being young (and studying beginning Russian), and I realized The Idiot was the only possible title.
How is writing a novel different from writing nonfiction for you, from a process point of view (or is it)?
I know those are the two main categories in America today: Before you say anything else about a book, you have to say if it’s “fiction” or “nonfiction,” and everyone knows that novels are fiction, while memoirs and essays are nonfiction. For me, this particular division doesn’t feel natural or productive. I don’t consider fictionality to be a defining characteristic of the novel. In fact I think it’s not just wrong, but pointless and and tone-deaf to look at a group of texts that includes In Search of Lost Time and War and Peace, and say: “The great unifying feature of these texts is that the events they describe never happened.”
There wasn’t that much of a difference of process for me with writing The Idiot versus writing The Possessed. I did feel more free and comfortable writing The Idiot because I didn’t have to go on the record saying, “Every single thing that happened in this book is true.” In fact, I initially really wanted to write The Possessed as a novel, but was told that it could only be nonfiction, because nobody would ever read a whole novel that was just about a grad student studying Russian literature; the only possible way to get anyone to read a book about Russian literature grad school would be if it gave them the sense that they were actually also getting the educational bonus of learning something about Russian novels that they didn’t have time to read.
The assumption, to me weird and paradoxical, was that people would learn less about Russian novels from a novel about Russian novels, than from a nonfiction book about Russian novels. Still, maybe this assumption was right, because The Possessed made it onto the NYT bestseller list, which was a big surprise. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened if I had been able to play around with personal details and chronology and call it a novel, as I originally wanted.
As far as my own writing process goes, the biggest difference isn’t between fiction and nonfiction, but between reported and non-reported writing. I’ve been doing reported journalism for the New Yorker since 2006; this involves making recordings and taking notes and calling people on the phone and working with fact-checkers to make sure that there is some basic level of consensus between everyone mentioned in the story about the facts under discussion. In non-reported writing, I’m less interested in capturing objective truth than in communicating a subjective experience. That’s one reason I found it easier to write a “novel” than a “memoir”: I don’t want to have to vouch for the accuracy of what I’m saying, especially not about other people, and I’m not trying to make any objective truth claims, or change the historical record. I’m interested in getting a story that feels subjectively true to the reader, based on his or her experience of being alive.
"In non-reported writing, I’m less interested in capturing objective truth than in communicating a subjective experience."
Why did you set the novel in the mid-1990s? Do you think the college experience has changed significantly since?
Well, I went to college in the mid-1990s. I wanted to write about the feeling a lot of people had at that time, that history was over. The end of the Cold War (which seemed, when I was little, like an immutable part of the world) seemed like a sign or precursor of the total triumph of liberal democracy, of the end of racism and sexism and every kind of discrimination. Lots of people really thought that the rest of history was going to be a long staircase of technological improvement.
I do think the college experience has significantly changed since the 1990s. We had no cell phones or Wikipedia. Identity politics weren’t mainstream. Homosexuality was way less socially accepted. Acts and statements that we view as sexual harassment now, just were not considered harassment then; thinking too much about what was and wasn’t harassment (or rape) felt like being a time-wasting pedant, and a certain kind of ambitious young woman tended to internalize all kinds of slights in the name of open-mindedness, humanism, and the big picture, in a way that doesn’t happen so much anymore.
That said, I think there are many aspects of being 18 and leaving home for the first time that are very much the same now as they were in 1995, and will probably be the same in 2025, and weren’t all that different in 1845, which is why there have been and will continue to be so many novels about this time of life.
"I think there are many aspects of being 18 and leaving home for the first time that are very much the same now as they were in 1995, and will probably be the same in 2025, and weren’t all that different in 1845, which is why there have been and will continue to be so many novels about this time of life."
Is it safe to say that plot is a secondary concern in The Idiot? How did you think about plot while writing this book?
Well, in the first half of the book, plot actually was a concern—I thought a lot about pacing and momentum. In the second half, though, you’re right, plot was a secondary concern, or a non-concern, or really an anti-concern. One thing I wanted to get at in the second half of the book was the feeling of falling outside of plot. I think for all or many people there are times when one feels like a character in a book or movie, and everything that happens feels meaningful, picturesque, like it’s heading towards something; but it’s possible to lose that feeling, sometimes quite suddenly, and then for a time, sometimes quite a long time, life feels like just a list of occurrences or experiences with no order or meaning. Often that feeling of the loss of plot is attached to the loss of some person, who seems to have been the whole receptacle for that feeling. This loss can be devastating, especially for a young person. I wanted to communicate that devastating feeling, the feeling of free-fall, and the struggle to get back into plot again.
So much of this novel is about communicating with people and how hard it is. Selin knows two languages and is studying two more, but she still has difficulty expressing her feelings and communicating with others in a meaningful way. This is a struggle that all humans face—especially writers. How did you find your work and life experience informing this theme, or your decision to explore it?
You know, I really did study all those languages in college, and later I did a Ph.D. in comp lit, which took forever, and now I can read (and sort of speak) in seven languages—and it never really occurred to me, before you asked this question, that the motivation was rooted in the desire to communicate and to feel less alone. This now strikes me as pretty ironic, since many of the most alienating experiences in my life have involved trying to communicate in a foreign language.
Of course you’re right that literature comes from the struggle to communicate. Writers are often people who had lonely childhoods. When I was little, my parents worked really hard, I didn’t have siblings, and the rest of my family was in another country. Reading was what first made me realize that other people felt and experienced the same things that I did, things I thought nobody else knew about. It was the most wonderful feeling, a true gift. From an early age, the thing I most wanted was to become a writer and give that gift to other people.
When picking up a novel starring a college freshman, readers might expect drinking and sex. Not to spoil too much, but neither of these things figure significantly in The Idiot. Was that intentional?
Selin knows that drinking is supposed to be a big deal in college, and she can see that the other kids are obsessed with alcohol and how to get it. But personally, she’s just like: “How is it going to improve my actual life to be drunk right now.” She associates drinking with her parents, so it isn’t especially cool to her. That sense of inner feelings and personal history not matching up with social expectations or received stories is really basic to novels in general, and to the story I wanted to tell. It didn’t have to be drinking; but that was actually my own experience with alcohol in my first year of college, so that’s what I used to express that disjuncture. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, that’s how I experienced and understood that disjuncture, so I just kept it that way in the book. Either way, I guess it’s both intentional and unintentional.
With sex, I guess I would say that sex is really important in The Idiot—it’s just that sometimes the important thing is people not ending up having sex. Sexual frustration is a famous engine for novelistic production—just look at Henry James.
Selin sees Ivan as more experienced and wise because he is older, but I had to wonder if he knew any more about the world than she did. How do you see that character? Is he a good guy?
I’m delighted and touched by this question. In a way it’s the point of the book. All the novel gives you is Selin’s subjective impressions, which you know don’t coincide 100% with objective reality (otherwise it wouldn’t be called The Idiot). So you’re right to question her judgment. It’s safe to assume that Ivan is less wise and more confused than he seems to Selin. After all, we know he seems old to her, but we also know he’s only 23.
Beyond that, though, I think the best answer to your question is in Proust, in the passage I used as the epigraph. It starts like this:
But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through—awkward indeed but by no means infertile—is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us to form an inseparable part of their personality. In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind…
I vividly remember from my student years the feeling that “the most trivial attributes of other people” are actually fundamental aspects of their personality. Everything a professor/ authority figure/ love-object said seemed like a transparent reflection of that person’s fixed and unchanging policy, personality and intentions. By contrast, everything I said was provisional, cobbled together, in flux.
Gradually I came to realize that everyone experiences their subjectivity as being provisional and in flux, and that everyone assumes, at least at first, that other people are more coherent and fixed in their identities. However much we know that all people are human, we feel like “the world is thronged with monsters and with gods.” All other people seem to be either good or not good; all their actions seem to be adding up toward some intention or plan.
In other words: the fact that Ivan seems like both a god and a monster to Selin has more to do with her time of life than with what he’s really like.
I have to ask about the last line of the book! Selin is totally wrong, right? How do you feel about the ending?
You know, to answer this question I’m going to quote the rest of the epigraph from Proust:
There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.
So—yes, I think Selin is wrong, sort of; more accurately, she doesn’t see things the way she will later. At the end of The Idiot, things haven’t turned out in a way she expected, or wanted, or understood. She feels embarrassed, the way we all feel embarrassed about how things happened, about how we acted towards people and how people treated us in return, when we were in our teens. Later, I think that she will eventually realize how much she learned that year—maybe more than in any other period in her life.
In general, I think we don’t always recognize learning, because it feels more like losing something than like gaining something.
What are you working on next?
I’ve actually started working on another book about Selin. I’m also working on a book about Turkey.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Idiot.