It’s probably possible to read Elif Batuman’s first novel—the story, by a Harvard-educated, language-obsessed, Turkish-American writer, of a language-obsessed, Turkish-American writer’s first year at Harvard—without pondering its resemblance to her life. It may even be possible to read The Idiot without cross-referencing it against Batuman’s considerable body of literary criticism. But what fun would that be? Such self-imposed contextual poverty would resemble the “limited historical consciousness” that Batuman has often lamented in contemporary American fiction, perhaps most notoriously in her 2010 attack on MFA programs, “Get a Real Degree,” “I should state upfront,” she wrote in that piece, “that I am not a fan of program fiction,” a species of writing she accuses of narrowing its own intellectual horizons and frame of reference. This narrowing, in turn, she traces to bourgeois guilt over the nature of literature: “Because writing is suspected to be narcissistic and wasteful, it must be ‘disciplined’ by the program.” The result is fiction that reads as if it came from “a developing nation with no literary tradition.”
I was not a fan of this line of argument when Batuman initially made it. I read her avidly, but she was one of those writers I would lose an afternoon mentally arguing with. Her generalizations were too sweeping, her arguments sometimes half-baked. What is her beloved nineteenth-century Russian literature but the product of a “developing nation” with a fairly new literary tradition? But my ambivalence was self-interested, too. I finished an MFA in fiction just as Batuman came to literary prominence, and I resented that so many better-established writers, herself included, seemed to be trying to lower the perceived value of my and my friends’ degrees, both by writing polemics against MFA programs (as Batuman and seemingly everybody else was doing) and, as in the case of David Shields and his followers, by attacking the very idea of novels. In some ways, Batuman seemed allied with this latter group of writers as well. Though she praised novelists old and new—Chekhov; Balzac; even Franzen, that bête blanc of recent literary history—she described, far better than did the negligible Shields, that weariness with the kayfabe of plot and character that afflicted so many of us in those years. “The juxtaposition of personal narrative with the facts of the world and the facts of literature—the real work of the novel—is taking place today largely in memoirs and essays,” she wrote in “Get a Real Degree,” and in an interview around the same time, she elaborated on this point in oddly specific detail: “[A] lot of the writers that I know are incredibly good email writers and a lot of the time I find their emails more compelling than the things they are writing at the time.... The email is kind of the unknown life, and the published writings are the known life.” I, too, felt like I needed fiction to bridge these two lives, or somehow turn them into one.
In the past decade, some writers have solved this problem by turning to autofiction. If realism’s devices for measuring the divergence between life and art, or between the known and unknown lives, had gotten old hat, writers like Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard foregrounded the unknown life, using tactics already developed and forgotten in the twentieth century by writers as diverse as Linda Rosenkrantz, William Demby, John Edgar Wideman, Renata Adler, Chris Kraus, and Marguerite Duras, many of whom experienced a revival during this period. If the essay seemed to be stealing the novel’s territory, these writers stole back, writing things that read like essays but called themselves novels, and in some cases (Knausgaard, Lerner) they foregrounded the shame of writing as well. These books were joined by works like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Terry Castle’s The Professor, which, like Batuman’s hilarious 2010 memoir The Possessed, blended narrative, theory, and criticism into something compulsively readable.