To commemorate my first semester of college, I decided to revisit Elif Batuman’s 2017 fiction debut and Pulitzer Prize finalist The Idiot. Set in 1995, the novel follows its narrator Selin through her first year of college and summer abroad. She receives her first email address, veers ambitiously from discipline to discipline, and falls in love with someone who doesn’t love her back. A linguistics major at Harvard, Selin spends much of her time absorbed by language and the different ways in which people communicate with each other, yet are seemingly incapable of doing so in a way that matters.
Selin is young and inexperienced compared to Ivan, a senior mathematics student whom she meets in Russian class. The two develop a relationship through which Batuman explores the plight of sincere communication: they exchange weekly emails, as suggestive and elaborate as they are insubstantial; Ivan even admits to Selin, “My love for you is for the person writing your letters,” an apt portrayal of how technology can distort relationships. As unreliable and cruel as he is, however—not to mention his girlfriend—Selin can’t resist. Their one-sided affair escalates into a confusion of missed calls, long walks, and Selin’s decision to teach English in Hungary over the summer.
What’s refreshing is that Batuman holds back from condemning Selin for her misplaced attention—and from, as other contemporary writers might, ritualistically attempting to moralize and justify her desire. Instead, Selin is an earnest reporter of her circumstances and moods. While this makes for a frustrating reading experience as she waits for Ivan to email back, it also makes for a more empathic one: we, too, are held captive in Selin’s bouts of regret and longing, “dizzy from the sense of intimacy and remoteness.” Yet, this makes sense, knowing that the novel is semi-autobiographical. Batuman reveals as much in her first book The Possessed, a collection of essays which, like its fictional successor, takes its name after one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s works. In doing so, it becomes inextricably bound to literary tradition.
In her introduction to The Possessed, Batuman discusses her choice to pursue a PhD rather than accept a fiction writing fellowship. She observes “the puritanical culture of creative writing,” which emphasizes the production of literature as a “craft” instead of an art or science; another aspect of this culture is the understanding that “the academic study of literature…[is] bad for a writer’s formation.” As a result of this, Batuman told Columbia Journal, there seems to exist a “historically recent idea to me that fiction is some space of pure narrative and imagination without a deep connection to previous literature, or to historical ideas, or to basically all the thoughts that a literate person might have in her head.” In other words, it’s almost as if writers today are being taught to write as if they “haven’t read anything.”
Batuman isn’t the only critic of contemporary fiction, or rather of the issue that Anna Levin in Current Affairs also attributes to a focus on “craft” in MFA programs. Levin claims that the Cold War brought about a shift in the creative writing world, away from broader societal concerns and toward introspection and navel-gazing. Encouraged to “show, don’t tell,” writers began to prioritize style over substance, fixated on the so-called “beautification of the mundane.” In the worst-case scenario, this results in meticulously written novels that are pleasurable to read, but often lacking in distinct character, plot, or even meaning. Author and critic Brandon Taylor likens the experience to browsing through social media, or an Ikea catalog: “One briefly lives in a more beautiful, carefully arranged reality, and then you swipe and the image is gone and there is nothing there.”
If, according to Batuman in The Possessed, “[c]ontemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years,” then this might explain why The Idiot initially reads somewhat as a hybrid between fiction and memoir—not necessarily because of how much it takes from Batuman’s real life, but because of how much it embraces the existence of art and literature outside of the novel at all. Selin is constantly ruminating on song lyrics, interrogating cultural norms, and coming up with implications of her coursework; she isn’t afraid to tell, not show. It might also explain why the novel has been criticized for being tedious, if not altogether pretentious or boring.
The Idiot layers reference upon reference to the point of becoming self-referential, like a sitcom keeping up a bit. Except the bit isn’t always a joke; more often than not, it’s Selin saying something astounding like, “Of course he couldn’t love me, not when I lived through so many layers, when I was spooked by Montmartre, and wore a seat belt in order to steer a car out of a ditch.” Sometimes it is the casual echo of Søren Kierkegaard’s writing on aesthetics and ethics, or the way context transforms The Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye” into a heartbreaking ballad about unrequited love and the futility of spoken language.
Ultimately, it would be in bad faith to read Batuman’s intellectual meandering as a transgression against readers who, like myself, still don’t understand the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. These references shouldn’t be taken as Batuman showing off, but as a unique treatment of self-discovery and coming-of-age in fiction. As Selin is faced with college’s many novelties, Batuman captures the singular delight of being perpetually in conversation with everything and everyone around you—and with everything that came before you, too.
It would also be in bad faith to assert the density of Batuman’s writing as superior to, say, the soul-searching of Sally Rooney’s masochistic heroines. In her 2018 best-seller Normal People, Rooney touches on Marx and Palestine seemingly just to demonstrate that Marianne, the novel’s sad girl-in-residence, is indeed self-aware (albeit painfully so). But perhaps Selin is just as masochistic. However, her reality doesn’t call for the kind of narration that traps its characters in prosaic noise—that is, the reality of Harvard, 1995, where one’s psyche maybe wasn’t as hollowed out by capitalism as many contemporary novels would suggest of today. After all, Rooney self-identifies as a Marxist. Perhaps “craft”-oriented work neglects historical context to reflect how, when a narrative is burdened by capitalist systems, historical knowledge is delegitimized altogether.
Does this imply that today’s literature is rightfully self-absorbed, or that certain novels can be read as inherently bourgeois? Probably not. The literary scene is always changing, and I really only refer to mainstream literary fiction published in the last decade or so. Still, I wonder how likely it is for another novel like The Idiot to be published, and to receive the same critical acclaim. Selin may be relatable, but can her blend of narrative conflict and linguistic theory be considered accessible? Is literature obligated to be accessible? To be marketable? To be beautiful, even?
The Idiot by no means has a happy ending, but it does show that Selin has lived through something meaningful. With refreshing honesty and precision, Batuman depicts how life can be shaped by the pursuit of knowledge and validates the ability of the everyday to be hilariously, inexplicably profound. And even if it isn’t profound, then it can at least still be funny—such as toward the end of the novel, during Selin’s stay in a Hungarian village. After crowning the winners of a local beauty pageant, the older male judges come forward to kiss the young girls’ cheeks, resulting in one of the book’s many moments of unabashed personality: Batuman reserves her protagonist’s right to feel truly and deeply, and Selin’s reaction is framed by her recent heartbreak.
Naturally, she wants to get to the bottom of this injustice. “What had men ever done,” she asks the reader, “to deserve so much beauty and grace?”
—Ida Mobini, Fall 2022 Staff