Lately, I have enjoyed reading anything by Elif Batuman [link].
First, there was her debut book. A collection of essays called, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them:
Batuman writes well about great books (most of her writing can be accessed via her website [link]). I can't help thinking that it is (almost) always a pleasure to read an author, or critic, writing about something they love (not admire, love). Not because love might improve the quality of criticism - probably the opposite, if anything - but because the willingness of the writing sings from the page. The first essay in the book, "Babel in California", is full of humour and affection (and, I think, love) for Issac Babel. And, it is a good example of Batuman's eye for absurdity and her cleverness:
The first time I read Issac Babel was in a college creative writing class. The instructor was a sympathetic Jewish novelist with a Jesus-like beard, an affinity for Russian literature, and a melancholy sense of humor, such that one afternoon he even "realized" the truth of human mortality, right there in the classroom. He pointed at each of us around the seminar table: "You're going to die. And you're going to die. And you're going to die." I still remember the expression on the face of one of my classmates, a genial scion of the Kennedy family who always wrote the same story, about a busy corporate lawyer who neglected his wife. The expression was confused.
The New York Times review of The Possessed [link] neatly described what makes the book wonderful:
Elif Batuman is clearly one of those people whom Babel described, in one of his Odessa stories, as having “spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.” Her autumnal impulses are balanced by jumpy, satirical ones. It’s a deep pleasure to read over her shoulder.
But, Batuman does not always write with love. Some of the most eyebrow-raising moments in take place when she targets (perhaps that is a bit strong) the institution of Creative Writing. In the introduction to The Possessed, she writes about an experience at a writer's workshop:
I wanted to be a writer, not an academic. But that afternoon, standing under a noisy tin awning in a parking lot facing the ocean, eating the peanut-butter sandwiches I had made in the cafeteria at breakfast, I reached some conclusive state of disillusionment with the transcendentalist New England culture of "creative writing." In this culture, to which the writing workshop belonged, the academic study of literature was understood to be bad for a writer's formation. By what mechanism, I found myself wondering, was it bad? Conversely, why was it automatically good for a writer to live in a barn, reading short stories by short-story writers who didn't seem to be read by anyone other than writing students?
In the second example of her writing I came across, Get a Real Degree, published in the London Review of Books [link], she returns to this topic, this time as part of a book review:
Like many aspiring writers in America, I enrolled in graduate school after college, but I went for a PhD rather than an MFA. I had high hopes that McGurl, who made the same choice, might explain to me the value of contemporary American fiction in a way I could understand, but was disappointed to find in The Programme Era traces of the quality I find most exasperating about programme writing itself: oversophistication combined with an air of autodidacticism, creating the impression of some hyperliterate author who has been tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition. [...]
To my mind, the real cause of shame here is the profession of writing, and it affects McGurl just as much as it does Carver and Oates. Literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical. It doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims. Because writing is suspected to be narcissistic and wasteful, it must be ‘disciplined’ by the programme – as McGurl documents with a 1941 promotional photo of Paul Engle, then director of the Iowa workshop, seated at a desk with a typewriter and a large whip. (Engle’s only novel, McGurl observes, features a bedridden Iowan patriarch ‘surrounded by his collection of “whips of every kind”, including “racing whips”, “stiff buggy whips”, “cattle whips”, “riding crops” and one “endless bullwhip”’.) The workshop’s most famous mantras – ‘Murder your darlings,’ ‘Omit needless words,’ ‘Show, don’t tell’ – also betray a view of writing as self-indulgence, an excess to be painfully curbed in AA-type group sessions. Shame also explains the fetish of ‘craft’: an ostensibly legitimising technique, designed to recast writing as a workmanlike, perhaps even working-class skill, as opposed to something every no-good dilettante already knows how to do. Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better (Stuff White People Like #21: ‘Writers’ Workshops’). [...]
Might the ideal of ‘creativity’, taken as a supremely valuable, supremely human faculty, be harmful to a writer’s formation? It seems ominous that the role of creativity in American education originates, as McGurl observes, in Cold War rhetoric: through creativity, America was going to prevail over its ‘relentlessly drab ideological competitor’ and ‘outdo the group-thinking Communist enemy’. The value placed on creativity and originality causes writers to hide their influences, to hide the fact that they have ever read any other books at all and, in many cases, to stop reading books altogether. One telling result of this value is a gap in quality between American literary fiction and non-fiction today. Many of the best journalistic and memoiristic essays in the world today are being written in America. I think of myself as someone who prefers novels and stories to non-fiction; yet, for human interest, skilful storytelling, humour, 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. This is one of many brilliant observations in David Shields’s recent manifesto Reality Hunger, in which he argues that we had best give up the novel altogether. But I don’t think the novel is dead – or, more accurately, I don’t see why it has to be dead. It’s simply being produced under the kinds of mistaken assumption that we don’t make when it comes to non-fiction. Non-fiction is about some real thing in the world, some story that someone had to go out and pursue. It’s about real people and real books, which are, after all, also objects in the world. Why can’t the novel expand to include these things, which were once – in Don Quixote, for example – a part of its purview? [...]
In the final pages of his book, drawing up the merits of programme writing, McGurl ultimately falls back on the one thing the programme really does teach: technique. Countering Eliot’s dictum that ‘art never improves,’ he proposes that literature might, rather, resemble technology or sport, in which ‘systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance.’ Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. 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. [...]
What really made me fall for Batuman's writing, however, was not her scorn for the craft of writing (although I found myself making small noises of agreement as I read...), but a recent article in the New York Times called Kafka's Last Trial [link]. Her subject is the bizarre legal goings-on that have been taking place in Israel; people are trying to decide what to do with the things Kafka wrote. Batuman's article is great:
[...] One afternoon during my stay in Tel Aviv, I headed to Spinoza Street on the off-chance that Eva Hoffe was home and felt like talking to the press. I was accompanied by Avi Steinberg, an American writer living at the time in Jerusalem. I had become acquainted with Steinberg two months earlier, when he mailed me the galleys of a memoir he wrote about his experiences as a prison librarian. In subsequent correspondence, I mentioned my impending Kafkaesque assignment to report on a “Kafka archive kept for decades in a cat-infested Tel Aviv flat,” confessing to some apprehensions that I would be unable to locate the apartment. Steinberg promptly replied that the address was 23 Spinoza Street, that he had recently rung the doorbell himself but had no answer and that “last week in court, Eva Hoffe’s sweater was covered in animal hairs, possibly originating from a cat or cats.”
Walking through the city center, we discussed the mystery of Kafka’s testament. Steinberg saw in Kafka’s cryptic letter to Brod another version of the parable of Abraham and Isaac. (Kafka wrote several retellings of this story in 1921, the same year he first mentioned to Brod that he wanted his work to be burned.) Kafka, Steinberg suggested, wanted to prove that he was ready to incinerate the child of his creation, simultaneously knowing and not knowing that Brod would step in and play the role of the angel.
“The thing is,” Steinberg said, “we only have Brod’s word for any of this. What if Kafka never even told him to burn his stuff? Has anyone ever seen that letter? What if this is all some big idea Brod had?”
Similarly paranoid thoughts cross the mind of nearly everyone who studies Kafka. At a certain point you realize that everything — even the picture of Brod as a good-natured busybody who ignored Kafka’s wishes — comes from Brod himself. “Don’t write this down — I don’t want to be the laughingstock of the academic community,” one scholar told me, having ventured the idea that Brod himself had composed all of Kafka’s writings and, alarmed by their strangeness, attributed them to a reclusive friend who worked at an insurance office.
Spinoza Street is in a quiet residential neighborhood lined by flat-roofed stucco buildings. The dingy off-pink stucco facade of No. 23 was partly obscured by a tree with enormous glossy leaves that were apparently being eaten away by something. Parked under the tree were a broken shopping cart and an old bicycle. Behind a large protruding window, enclosed by two layers of metal grillwork, lay an indistinct heap of cats. Some commotion involving a blackbird took place in one of the trees, causing six or so cats to look up in unison, elongating their necks. The breeze turned. A terrible smell wafted toward us. [...]