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Elif Batuman on why you should never be embarrassed about anything

The author of The Idiot joins the Vox Book Club to talk about sequels, Russian literature, and what the novel means today.

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Elif Batuman and Constance Grady in conversation.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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The Vox Book Club spent September reading The Idiot, Elif Batuman’s witty and touching campus novel about trying to become a writer at Harvard in 1995. And to culminate our month of discussion, Batuman herself paid a virtual visit to the club for a live chat with us on Zoom. In a beautifully wide-ranging conversation, she filled us in on what the sequel to The Idiot that she’s working on right now looks like, why the novel is a politically radical form, and why you should never be embarrassed about anything. The Idiot was our back-to-school book, and I think it is safe to say that we all learned a great deal from Professor Batuman’s session.

Check out the video above to watch our full conversation. I’ve also collected a few highlights, lightly edited for length and clarity, below.

Once you finish up here, I highly recommend starting Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, if you haven’t already. It’s our October book club pick and the perfect story to get you in the Halloween spirit. We’ll start our discussion of Mexican Gothic on October 16; sign up for our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything in the meantime.

What volume two of The Idiot will look like

You’ve said The Idiot was the prequel to the book you originally planned to write. Are you still working on that one?

The book that I’m writing now is called Either/Or. It’s kind of a comically literal sequel to The Idiot in that it starts in [Selin’s] sophomore year of college. When I told my friends, they were like, “Oh, my god, is it going to be a tetralogy?” People will be like, “Oh, in volume four will you find out if she got enough credits to graduate?”

Over the course of the book, Selin is studying a lot of different languages, philosophies of language, and linguistics. And at the end, she concludes that they didn’t really teach her the things she actually wanted to know about languages. So what do you think is the thing that she wanted to know?

I wrote about this a little more in my other book, The Possessed, which is a nonfiction one, and it also talks about college a little bit. I was in college in the ’90s, and now we’re in such a different historical period from then. Also now I’m in my 40s, which I think is the time when a person really gets to see what the ideology that they grew up with as a young person was. Because when you’re a young person, you’re like, this is just reality. And then you get a little bit older, and you see that all of these things are different, and you’re like, oh, that was history. Now I’m becoming aware of how much the Cold War shaped my experience of high school and college, and specifically my ideas about what it was to be a writer.

I knew that I wanted to be a writer. And I knew that I wanted to write novels. But one idea that I had, which was this kind of perverted version of German romanticism that I think trickled down to America and to creative writing programs via the Cold War, was that you shouldn’t read too many books. That you would slavishly imitate them. I thought that I wanted to learn some kind of pure form that I could just pour my own content into later, and it would be somehow true to me and to who I was as an individual, because I really believed in individualism. And also, I had been so frustrated with high school and with high school English class, and I was just ready for the next thing.

So in real life, when I got to college, I did try to major in linguistics, and I did do philosophy of language and studied psychology of language and neurolinguistics and all this stuff because I thought that that was somehow going to give me the correct structure to become a novelist. And then I found out very quickly that that was incorrect and that actually what I needed to do was to read more novels to understand and to enter into this discourse.

But that last sentence in the book [“I hadn’t learned anything at all.”] is also just more generally conveying a sense that I think most people have, which is that the things that you learn are not necessarily from the place where they’re the most vividly flagged, like, “This is where the big information is going to be.” It often does not work out that way.

On choosing between an aesthetic and an ethical life

So the reason that volume two is called Either/Or is that Selin reads this book by Kierkegaard called Either/Or, which is about whether to live an aesthetic life or an ethical life. And she realizes that this is the core of her friendship with Svetlana, and everything that she did with Ivan can sort of make sense if she puts it in terms of the aesthetic life. She doubles down on it. And Svetlana doubles down in the opposite direction and on the sort of ethical life and on self-care. And they just both go these different ways. Svetlana wants to be in a stable relationship with someone who’s caring and nurturing, and Selin is just like, “You’re an alien. I don’t understand you. I just want to eat cashews every day for two months.”

I think one of the things that’s so interesting about Selin’s idea of the aesthetic life is that it is also so wrapped up in her idea of what you need to experience to become a writer. I love that passage where she’s talking about a girl in her dorm who also wants to be a writer and she’s going to intern at New York Magazine over the summer, and Selin’s solution is to go to Hungary for the summer. What do you think is attractive to her about staying away from the traditional classic resume-building skills that Harvard is usually known for creating and emphasizing?

Well, I really did read Either/Or in my sophomore year of college, and I went completely bonkers. Part of why I wanted to write this book was just to unpack how crazy I went. And the part about the aesthetic life, it’s all about marriage. It’s about how you have to have a marriage, and you have to have a family. It’s kind of odd when you think about it. And in Part Two, in Either/Or, that’s the path that Svetlana is on.

I’m realizing more and more the extent to which Selin’s mistrust of the conventional career path and the conventional hoops that you jump through are really tied up with an aversion toward conventional family life. And so there’s a part in Either/Or where she talks about learning what that aesthetic life is.

And she’s like, this was really exciting to me, because it was the first time that I had ever heard this idea that a person’s life could be a work of art. Even though the particular example that I read about was not very inspirational because this guy was just like eating food that had been painted black and gilt and pressing a turtle. Nonetheless, the idea of creating your life as a work of art was incredibly compelling because it was the first time that I had heard of any purpose for your life other than making money in order to pay for your children, and having children and making money.

Nobody ever said that was the point of life, but it always turned out to be. Religious people say that it’s because you have to outnumber the people from other religions. And secularist people say that it’s so that you outnumber the religious people in elections. Or it’s that you have someone to take care of you when you’re older, or so that you experience this boundless love. And then she’s like, “Well, but why can I only experience this love for someone who I gave birth to?” None of it makes sense.

She’s like, I decided that the reason that people do this one thing that everyone does is because they either don’t know that they’re not allowed not to, or there isn’t something else that they want to do more than that, or they just haven’t heard the news. And she wants to go to Harvard because she thinks that there she’ll meet the fortunate resourceful people who have some other idea for what to do, and she’ll learn about it from them. And then she gets there. And there’s this disillusionment that even at Harvard, you’ll be talking to someone who seems like they view the world as a place of the free exchange of ideas and creativity. And you’ll just find out that they’re trying to get everything interesting in their life over with in time to settle down in a good school district. And it just fills her with this horror.

In Volume Two, all of this has been written after I’ve gone through a long course of therapy. So it has a bunch of the things that I realized: that a lot of it is wanting to avoid the mistakes that I felt that my parents made. There’s a part where Selin is talking to Svetlana, and they both have their dissatisfactions with their life in their family of origin. Svetlana has the idea that she can redo everything that her parents did wrong, and she’s going to do it right. And Selin’s idea is like, my parents were doomed. There’s nothing better that they could have done, they were just fucked from the beginning. And I have to just avoid that whole thing to begin with.

There’s some sense that maybe that’s what it is. That all of the aesthetic and the ethical is just about that.

How the novel can re-politicize daily life

Part of what makes this book so immersive is the idea that it’s about the weird little trivialities that make up a life. And I know you’ve written in your criticism before about the idea that the novel should be about the garbage of life, which is a phrase I really love.

Right now is a time where it can be difficult to find meaning in basically doing anything that isn’t concrete political action or literally making a Covid vaccine. So how do you think about the role of the novel, or of art more broadly, in a time like this?

I actually think that a lot of the political problems we’re in now come from a false demarcation. I think the way that we define the word “political” is a little messed up. I think of that tautological feeling that you get from the slogan “the personal is political”: We have drawn a line, a dividing line, and actually that line should not be there, and it’s causing us all kinds of problems.

I’ve been reading a lot more about psychoanalysis and Freud and Marxist criticism. And I think that we really underestimate the extent to which things that happen in the family, family dynamics, determine giant political outcomes. In the past few years, I’ve come to think differently about a lot of things, partly from all of the political stuff that’s been going on. I was one of the apolitical ’90s people who became super woke after all of this awakening stuff. And also just through therapy and realizing.

I went through this disillusionment with the novel where I was like, “Oh, my God, I was de-radicalized by the novel.” I was attracted to novels, and to Russian novels particularly, and the ones that drew me in were the ones that showed particularly clearly the unfairness to women that occurred in patriarchal society. And also the oppression of peasants, because it was all of this Russian literature. And part of what I was drawn to about it was how they show that it’s wrong.

And yet, I realize that these novels aestheticize and legitimize all of these problems. It seems like they’re unavoidable, they’re human, they’re complex, they make a great work of art. I sort of got into that path. And for a while, I was really bummed out about it.

But now I think that actually there is a political job for the novel to do, which is to re-politicize daily life, domestic life, the lives of children. The argument against telling domestic stories about love and children and only reading the newspaper is the most important thing is the affairs of nations where people’s lives are being lost in the hundreds of thousands. It’s not what happened between Mommy and Daddy in the bedroom or the living room. But a book like War and Peace really shows that it’s the family life of the Rostovs, for example, or Pierre Bezukhov, that determines whether they do or don’t join the army, and then that without the people joining the army, there’s no war. That’s the whole point of War and Peace.

I think the novel has a potential to reintegrate those things and the things that we have dismissed as garbage. It’s a form of misogyny and classism to look down at garbage because it’s women and servants who deal with garbage. As if we can isolate those things.

Why you should never be embarrassed about anything

Here’s a question from the audience. Mary says, “I’m a freshman in college, and I read The Idiot. Two weeks before college started, I developed a crush on someone in my class who I had only met over Zoom and sent the book to him. How embarrassed should I be?”

Oh, well, you shouldn’t be embarrassed at all. Because you should never be embarrassed about anything. This is the thing that I’ve learned: You’ll waste all of your time being embarrassed about stuff that is like, this is okay.

I’ve become kind of an anti-privacy person. Because I think that privacy allows you to think that you have these problems that nobody else has. This is more Cold War stuff, too. They want everyone to think that everyone is completely different in order to depoliticize people. So part of letting go of that is just realizing that everything that you do is completely normal and legit and valid.

That was a great benefit for me for going back and writing a book when I was at an age where everything seems super embarrassing, and then editing it in my late 30s, where just none of it seemed that important anymore. I could just see, like, that person I was shouldn’t have been so embarrassed.

Anyway, you shouldn’t be embarrassed at all. I’m super flattered and happy that you read the book and it said something to you at this moment. And I’m wishing you all the best luck with the guy, and with a much more important thing, which is your self-development and your studies and your self-realization.

For more with Elif Batuman, including the fight between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and how The Idiot is like Twilight, watch our full conversation in the video above.

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