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Batuman Discusses Divides in Literature

Elif I. Batuman ’99 explores autobiography and the divide between academia and creative writing

By Abigail B. Lind, Crimson Staff Writer

Elif I. Batuman ’99 paused as she read from her new collection of autobiographical essays, “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.” At a passing reference to the white gates of Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Tolstoy’s estate, she glanced at the audience with a grin and interjected: “Spoiler alert. This is actually a very cleverly placed detail.”

The gates are one of the locations Batuman visits during her investigation of whether Leo Tolstoy was murdered. A piece chronicling the matter, titled “The Murder of Leo Tolstoy: A Forensic Investigation,” ran in Harper’s Magazine last year, but the research began in Stanford’s comparative literature department. Batuman has built a career around straddling the divide between academia and creative writing, alternating between literary criticism and essays on topics from comedy traffic school to the return of Lowell House’s Danilov bells to Russia.

Batuman’s talk last Friday, hosted by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Center for Government and International Studies, quickly departed from the content of “The Possessed,” as she engaged in repartee with the audience about her travels in Turkey, Russia, and Uzbekistan, and the challenges of balancing creative and academic work.

“When you write a book, you’re always having to talk about it,” she said. “Mine is very small, and is partially about its own writing, so [book talks] get really, really meta, really, really fast.” She then discussed the implications of her controversial review of Mark McGurl’s “The Program Era,” in which she criticized graduate creative writing programs for their “relentless paring down, and transforming of ‘writing’ into ‘technique.’”

“If you feel like writing is inherently self-indulgent, then don’t do it,” she said.

Throughout the event, Batuman returned to her conviction that creative writers should practice their craft “in conversation” with the existing literary canon. “What if,” she said, “instead of imitating ‘Lost Illusions’ and living in a garret in New York and just writing poetry and making love, you go to Balzac’s house, and read everything you can by him, and then write?”

The attendees focused their questions on the overlap of academia with fiction and creative non-fiction. When one asked whether there was “something that you can’t get from fiction that you can get from academic writing,” Batuman exclaimed: “Yeah, the truth! I used to be only concerned with beauty in fiction, but I’ve learned that truth and beauty overlap.”

The conversation touched briefly on the reactions that the people Batuman describes in “The Possessed” have had to the book’s often irreverent depiction of academia. She acknowledged that one person had been angry upon reading the book, while others were uncomfortable with their portrayals, but pleased that the humor would attract interest to Russian literature.

“When you write memoir,” Batuman said, “you write about your life, and at some point it intersects with other lives, and the perceptions aren’t always the same. The tradition in memoir is not that you call people up and make sure everything’s true, because it’s about one person’s perspective.”

She admitted some trepidation about her recent success. “When you achieve even a tiny amount of success, your life changes and becomes less like real life,” she said. “I’ve done less writing this year [while promoting the book] than I have since I was seven. In this book, I can sort of be belligerent and make certain jokes, but when people start being nice to you and inviting you to Harvard, you sort of stop doing that—you have to be careful.”

This need to consider how an audience will react to her writing can be paralyzing, Batuman said. “Ultimately I have to just sit down and write, and then worry about what people will think later... Usually you wait for everyone to be dead and then you write. But I can’t wait that long.”

—Staff writer Abigail B. Lind can be reached at alind@fas.harvard.edu.

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