Batuman’s Take Down of MFA Literary Fiction

I’m still on an Elif Batuman kick. I’ve been tracking down her essays online and I’m looking forward to reading The Possessed, which arrived in the mail yesterday. Batuman wrote a funny, blistering and brilliantly-argued essay in the London Review of Books in 2010 titled “Get a Real Degree” where she reviewed Mark McGurl’s history of MFA creative writing programs.

It isn’t entirely surprising that Batuman, who has a PhD from Stanford and is a Russian literature professor, is no cheerleader for programme fiction. What’s surprising is that Batuman writes with a sense of wit and style that must be the envy of many fiction writers.

University of Washington:  Suzzallo Library Reading Room
Creative Commons License photo credit: JoeInSouthernCA

The following provides a sense of her flare as a reviewer as well as her skepticism about programme fiction:

“In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.”

It is undeniable that contemporary “literary fiction” is now dominated by graduates of MFA programs; Batuman finds these books largely deficient:

“I think of myself as someone who prefers novels and stories to non-fiction; yet, for human interest, skillful storytelling, humor, and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of This American Life to be 99 per cent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction. 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.”

Her long essay makes a number of interesting points; in no particular order, they are:

  • Programme fiction has little “historical consciousness”
  • Programme writers are obsessed with writing about persecution & the persecuted (sounds similar to Harold Bloom’s complaint about what he termed the “literature of grievance”)
  • She challenges McGurl’s contention that until the advent of the GI Bill in the U.S., writers had generally forgone a university education
  • The whole project of literature as a “means to social change” (à la Dave Eggers) is something she remains suspicious of

Elif Batuman: A Classic 5′ 10″

Last April Elif Batuman wrote a great piece in The Guardian about life after her book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them became a best seller. The book is a memoir-like collection of essays chronicling her experiences studying the Russian masters.

Picture-Elif-Batuman

In the essay Batuman writes about a funny exchange between her and Jonathan Franzen at a NYC restaurant:

At that point, Franzen turned to me. “Are you really 6ft tall?” he demanded. This was a rather thoughtful allusion to my first published work, “Babel in California“: an essay that includes my exchange with an academic who suggests that Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry story cycle will never be fully accessible to me because of the narrator’s “specifically Jewish alienation”. To which I reply: “As a 6ft-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.”

“I’m 5 11,” I told Franzen.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

Well, I wasn’t sure. I had been measured at 5′ 11½” in college, and then 5′ 11″ in graduate school. There was every likelihood that I was shrinking. “I have scoliosis,” I conceded. “And I do spend all day sitting at a computer.”

“Go get yourself measured again,” Franzen advised. “To me you look like a classic 5 10.”

There is also an interesting note about how her writing career began with an essay in n+1 magazine in 2005:

“Babel in California” appeared in the small – at the time, tiny – magazine, n+1 in 2005. It caught the attention of the editor of the New Yorker. In 2006, I published my first New Yorker article: a profile of a Thai champion kick-boxer who had opened a school in San Francisco. I started getting emails from literary agencies. I settled on my current agent, whom I like very much.