Elif Batuman on the Need For Novels (And When Male Writers Describe Oral Sex)
Kristin Iversen Talks to the author of Either/Or
It was a review of The Idiot, her 2017 debut novel, that made Elif Batuman revisit Martin Amis’s 1973 debut novel, The Rachel Papers. “The reviewer was upset that there isn’t any sex in The Idiot,” Batuman says now, remembering that the piece cited Amis as having said: “The only thing wrong with Pride and Prejudice is that there isn’t a 30-page sex scene between Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy.”
“When I read that quote,” Batuman says, “I was like, Wait—why is Martin Amis giving pointers to Jane Austen? And it reminded me of the experience that I had reading The Rachel Papers when I was in my first or second year of college.”
That experience—like many of Batuman’s early college experiences—made its way into Either/Or, her second novel following the undergraduate adventures of Selin Karadağ. Like Batuman was, Selin is a Turkish-American Harvard student in the mid-90s, a preternaturally precise narrator of her environment and the people who populate it.
While The Idiot took place during Selin’s freshman year and took Dostoevsky for its titular inspiration, Either/Or occurs during her sophomore year, and borrows its title from Kierkegaard’s seminal text debating the merits of an aesthetic versus an ethical life. The novel features plenty of Selin’s biting humor, frustrations with evolving (and devolving) friendships, free-flowing thoughts on musicians from Fiona Apple to Lauryn Hill, and a stint writing for a travel guide. Also, there’s sex.
Batuman remembers being in college and reading Amis’s take on oral sex in The Rachel Papers, how he described it as being a “confrontation with a glistening pouch, redolent of oysters.” When she thought about it again, she says, “more than 20 years had passed, and I was like, Could it really have said that?” A quick Google confirmed that it did, and Selin’s contemplation of that part of The Rachel Papers is a pivotal part of the novel, a glimmering reminder of the ways in which even the most self-consciously progressive young women often see the world through the lenses of heterosexual men—whose vision is clearly impaired if they’re spotting “glistening oysters” in the dark.
If The Idiot could be seen as Batuman’s reflection on what it is to be young, fiercely intelligent, and consciously depoliticized, Either/Or is a step toward Selin’s eventual awakening, a future understanding that the shame that she feels around certain things is being projected upon her, and doesn’t have to exist within her. It is Batuman’s way of dismantling the way we talk about our desires and our fears, of reimagining the way the world could be—not only when it comes to oral sex, but, you know, that too.
I spoke with Batuman about embarrassment of our past selves, the need for novels, and what there is to feel optimistic about in art.
Kristin Iversen: At what point did you realize you wanted to continue Selin’s story?
Elif Batuman: While I was recording the audiobook for The Idiot, which was in January of 2017. That feeling grew stronger as 2017 progressed. That was the year of #MeToo, and then the next year was the Kavanaugh hearing, and it was a time when a lot of people were revisiting Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky and these different stories that had happened in the 90s. It was a time when a lot of women, myself included, were looking back at stories from experiences that we had in our twenties or in the 90s or just in the past, in general.
We were describing them to ourselves using different words than we had maybe used before, and that really made me want to return to that time and think about some of those issues, about rape culture, and patriarchy, and consent—even though those aren’t words that appear in the book and aren’t words I used at the time. I wanted to think about why I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms then and how I was thinking about it instead.
KI: Selin is someone who, like lots of us who were young during that era, is hyper-conscious of how she’s living her life and very capable of and even empowered by articulating her desires—or sometimes lack of desire—but still doesn’t haven’t perfect perspective on everything, because she’s in the middle of it all. Were there challenges with reinhabiting this character during this era with the knowledge you have now, and not being able to really utilize that knowledge in her voice?
EB: At the time that I decided to write the sequel, I was about a year into my first lesbian relationship with my partner—my life partner. I had only dated men until then. I was reading some queer theory and for the first time I was reading Adrienne Rich’s Compulsory Heterosexuality; it was a huge text for me at that time. So one thing I was thinking about, in addition to why didn’t I think of in terms of rape culture or why didn’t I think in terms of patriarchy, was: Where did compulsory heterosexuality work on me?
My life started to feel so much better once I was not living as a straight woman anymore—it just felt so much better to me. But by then I was 38; why did it take me so long? When you turn 40, you think back on your twenties—I think that’s true for everyone. It happened for me at a time when the national conversation was very much about what had been going on 20 years before. Those things coincided. There’s a temptation to say: Look how stupid we were, look how stupid I was, look how benighted I was. It was really important to me that like, I wasn’t stupid, or if I was stupid, then I’m no less stupid now, I just have better information, you know?
KI: I feel like it’s often hard to look back in time and not feel embarrassment about our past selves and our choices, but one thing that stands out to me with Either/Or is that there’s no condemnation of Selin.
EB: When I look back at that time, it would be easy to say, oh, the wool was really pulled over my eyes and I was really tricked and I really fell for something and I was really dumb. But the truth feels more complicated because, I mean, I was really proud of my critical skills. That was something that I worked really hard on and I had a great education in how to be critical, and I was overthinking everything and reading everything. I had access to a lot of information. I wasn’t uncurious. I wasn’t unobservant. I didn’t live under a rock. And yet I reached all these conclusions that now seem to me to be wrong.
Beyond just the desire of excavating for myself, it felt politically important to me to view my own story or my own experiences as a case study for how even very self-reflective, critical people can end up being depoliticized, or limit their own freedom and limit their own choices and limit the discourse that they’re in. Because that’s really what I feel that I did.I didn’t live under a rock. And yet I reached all these conclusions that now seem to me to be wrong.
I knew about feminism. It didn’t seem that relevant to me. I knew about psychotherapy. It just didn’t seem relevant to me. So I wanted to go back in time and kind of restage those missed encounters and restage the mistakes of youth as a way of showing why I didn’t do those things, why it seemed like a good idea at the time to act that way. The idea of that was that it would hopefully help readers think about their younger selves in sort of a gentler way, but also that it could invite readers to think about how we think of ourselves as being very critical now and of knowing everything now, but what might we be overlooking now?
KI: Selin has this ability to intellectualize, and possibly over-intellectualize and narrativize, everything going on around her. This would seem to go hand-in-hand with her curiosity, which is evident in her academic curiosity and her desire to travel and to have new experiences. But there winds up being this line that’s drawn, a line that’s fear-based. I’m thinking specifically of how Selin thinks about her friendship with Svetlana, and how close it is to a romantic relationship in terms of the intimacy of the time they spend with one another, and how that leads her to thinking about what it would be like to have sex with a woman. But she can’t complete that thought.
It’s so interesting that this insatiable, intellectually curious person who wants to lead this aesthetic life and have all these experiences and is willing to have sex with men in a free-spirited way, can’t get beyond what it would be like to do anything other than play with breasts. Her thought process gets stuck.
EB: Insofar as the project was to go back and to look at what paths were taken and what paths were not taken, I think fear and shame are hugely important in that. And Selin is trying so hard to be fearless and specifically to not be afraid of suffering. There’s actually a line in A Portrait of a Lady that, which comes up a little bit at the end [of Either/Or] where it’s like, Isabel wasn’t afraid of suffering in general. She thought that people suffered too easily. And I don’t remember if I mentioned that in the book, but that’s something that I really thought about at that age.
When I read Compulsory Heterosexuality, that was a really moving and striking text to me. And it had me going back in time and remembering and redescribing and replaying everything because I knew about the idea of heteronormativity, but Adrienne Rich is talking about a specific force that’s constantly working throughout history and across nearly all surviving cultures to wrench women’s and girls’ energy away from themselves and each other and toward men, and this heterosexuality is presented as an inborn orientation or a free choice.Why am I taking pointers on lesbian sex from Louis CK who’s never had lesbian sex?
To look at it that way is to not see this gigantic machinery that’s constantly working in some very obvious ways—and in some ways that aren’t obvious at all—to achieve this very practical end, which is to tear women, not just apart from each other, but away from themselves, and to really have to filter everything through that view.
So I just started to play this game of like, where did compulsory heterosexuality operate for me, and why didn’t I fall in love with a woman sooner? Why wasn’t I open to that sooner? What fear and shame were there? And, I just started remembering all these things. Like, I remembered there was a Louis CK bit where he talks about, like, how how gay sex is weird to him. He’s like, well, you know, I get gay male sex because you wanna put a thing into a thing, but gay women, they’re just doing sex wrong. It’s like you have two buckets and you’re rubbing the openings against each other.
I remember seeing that—it must have been 2012 or thereabouts—and I didn’t think it was funny, but I didn’t think of it as being untrue. I had this idea about the connections between women as being more tame or like less exciting, or like sort of a substitute for something—like you can’t quite manage this more rigorous program. It was kind of like thinking about Harvard versus a liberal arts college.
It was only much later that I was like, Why am I taking pointers on lesbian sex from Louis CK who’s never had lesbian sex?
KI: Beyond the fear and the shame that are so omnipresent at this time in life, there’s also—and probably it’s all related—a great deal of freedom, something that feels all the more special because of just having escaped childhood. Selin’s proximity to her childhood is evident, thanks to her closeness to her mother but also, I think, because of her focus on how she’s going to live the rest of her life, which is still spread out in front of her. This reminder of how young we really are when we start to lay the framework for our adulthoods felt really radical, particularly because Selin is both so traditional in so many of her choices, but also working so hard to break with her past.
EB: It was a shock when I was writing from the perspective of a 19-year-old to remember how close childhood was—to be talking about high school and then realizing that was just two or three years ago for her or that childhood was like ten years ago. I was reading a lot about childhood; I was reading a lot of Alice Miller. I was reading a lot about this idea of childism, which is that all of the hierarchies and the ways that we have of othering people and looking down at people like, classism, racism, sexism, they all originate in our experience as children. Childism is just about how you have no power and someone has all this power over you. And the minute you get out of that, you immediately start distancing yourself from it.Yeah, it is often bad sex, but it’s there’s a lot of it, and it’s true sex, because it’s great and gruesome—including emotionally gruesome.
I worked so hard to get past [my childhood]. I just wanted to be done with it and smoke cigarettes and get drunk, because those are things that prove that you’re not a kid anymore. And when, when you start to think of it that way, you just realize how many of the things that make the world a really challenging place for anyone to live in are because it’s all based on the coping mechanisms of traumatized former babies. Acknowledging that children are people and that we’re still children, that actually does feel very radical. It feels like something that the classical novels that I love in some ways cover up. They’re not about trying to expose that.
KI: Your novels fit within the form’s classic tradition, but within that you’re doing things that are truly subversive, like with the way problems arise but aren’t always fully addressed or in how Selin’s desire manifests, and how consummation is not an end point for her, or not the end point a reader might expect.
EB: At the time I wrote Either/Or, I was actually thinking about giving up on novels. I was starting to feel concerned that the novel was that for me—a coping mechanism. It helped me in this time of multiple subjectivities, and I found them inspirational, but the thing they inspired me to do wasn’t to like go out and, you know, make children’s lives better, or even improve the level of information that people had.
Writing a novel is so much work and it requires so much leisure time and space and support, and I was only at the point in my life where financially and, and emotionally, I had that. And by the time you get it, you don’t want the revolution to happen tomorrow, because then, you’re like, when am I gonna write my book? [laughs] So, I started to feel like this conservatism was actually built into the novel and it was something I was talking about to my therapist: I was going to stop writing. I was going to do something else.
But then the more I thought about it, the things that I wanted to do were teaching or becoming a therapist. And I was like, you know what, this is my teaching. I’m doing it through writing. I actually ended up at a place with much greater optimism about what novels can do—the fact that they haven’t done it so far doesn’t mean that they can’t do it.
KI: In both The Idiot and Either/Or, I feel like you do that with sex, which is something that readers feel like they know how it will be deployed in coming-of-age novels. But in The Idiot, there isn’t sex, and in Either/Or…
EB: My partner joked that it was like the monkey’s paw. [Laughs]
KI: Well, yeah, it is often bad sex, but it’s there’s a lot of it, and it’s true sex, because it’s great and gruesome—including emotionally gruesome. How did it feel though to reimagine how these expected aspects of this story should exist within it?
EB: It felt exhilarating. When I wrote The Idiot, I wasn’t thinking about those things. The Idiot is based very closely on stuff that happened in my first year of college, though, and Either/Or is a little bit different since I wrote it later. It was more of an imaginative reconstruction. It’s also close to my experience. When I would tell myself the story of my life, the whole freshman year experience was this relationship with this guy and these emails that had a huge significance for me and I thought about it a lot.
The stuff that happened in my second year—like having sex for the first time and coming to terms with all the stuff that I managed to avoid in the first year—was something that I really didn’t think about. I don’t want to use the word traumatic loosely, but it was a kind of trauma. It was kind of gruesome. It was gruesome physically. It was gruesome emotionally. It was just kind of carnage, and I didn’t think about it for a long time.
But, it did feel really exhilarating to look at those moments and treat them as traditional beats in a novel as I was writing Either/Or. I was thinking about the hero’s quest and the three act structure and what was Selin’s dark night of the soul? It felt funny and exciting to translate that into the version that I actually experienced.
KI: It must be challenging to revisit these things and articulate how to narrativize them in a way that is true to both past experience and present perception.
EB: We don’t necessarily have the language for talking about this stuff. I really feel like we’re at the beginning of something—like we’re at the beginning of something very exciting. This feels like a pessimistic time in a lot of ways, but I also feel this deep optimism and like if we were to have this conversation five years from now, we would be able to say all these things that we aren’t necessarily able to say now.