Elif Batuman on Choosing an Aesthetic Life

Your story “The Repugnant Conclusion” is adapted from your forthcoming novel, “Either/Or”—a sequel to your first novel, “The Idiot,” which told the story of a Turkish American girl, Selin, in her first year at Harvard. What made you want to revisit Selin and see her through another year?

The decision to write “Either/Or” came directly from the experience of publishing “The Idiot.” I wrote and abandoned the first draft of “The Idiot” in the early two-thousands, then revised it for publication starting in 2015. It came out in 2017. So there I was, about to turn forty, promoting a “début novel” about my first year of college, in an America in which Donald Trump, a familiar figure from my youth, was now somehow everyone’s ruler.

Every conversation in those days had a way of coming around to politics. With “The Idiot,” that meant a lot of questions about what wasn’t in the book. Why wasn’t Selin more politically engaged? Gradually, I came to see “The Idiot” as a book about depoliticization. In an early scene, Selin learns about the existence of government majors, people known as “gov jocks,” and she wonders, Are these people going to be our rulers? I remembered that line in 2018, when I was listening to Brett Kavanaugh yell at the Senate Judiciary Committee about how he’d “busted [his] butt” in high school to be the basketball captain and get into Yale. Yes: those people were now our rulers. And I had gone into literature.

I wanted to reconstruct, to dramatize, when and how Selin came to feel that politics held no place for her—how she chose, instead, literature and “love.” When I started writing “Either/Or,” I was a year into my first nonheterosexual relationship. I had just read Adrienne Rich’s well-known essay about “compulsory heterosexuality”: a transhistorical, transcultural force ceaselessly working to direct women’s energies away from themselves and one another and toward men. In retrospect, I could see the traces of that force throughout “The Idiot.” In the sequel, I set out to reconstruct and dramatize it more directly: how I encountered compulsory heterosexuality, how it worked on me, what it felt like. I now think of “Either/Or” as a book written from a queer and political consciousness, about a person who doesn’t yet realize that she has either of these things.

The main story line in “The Repugnant Conclusion” was also inspired by a handful of conversations that I had with “Idiot” readers who were upset or even angry that Selin and Ivan don’t have sex at the end of the book. Such interactions ended up being really productive, since they enabled me to retrieve, even to relive, the sense of failure that I’d felt after my own first year of college, when I, like Selin, hadn’t had sex with anyone. Whatever norms those readers had internalized—I’d had them, too. Where had they led me?

Selin is full of questions, about everything—from the structure of academic fields to the mechanics of sex. Why does she feel so at sea?

That’s what I love about writing from Selin’s perspective—asking questions. In a way, it’s all one big question: How much of seemingly invariant reality is actually a construct—something some guy made up? I mean, why is knowledge organized the way it is? The world is described by those in power, in a way that suits the interests of power. It becomes really hard to change the descriptions—to even see that they are descriptions.

Take “the mechanics of sex.” On the surface, what could be less cultural, more biologically determined? And yet, if you consider it from a lesbian or queer consciousness, it’s totally a construct! What counts as sex, and why? Whose interest does it serve to count it that way? That’s not a rhetorical question; it goes back to the development of agriculture, to the connections between private property, inheritance laws, and the sexual control of women.

As you can see, I have a lot of answers these days. But answers aren’t a great place to write from. Writing is about opening things, not closing them. I love that Selin doesn’t have all that stuff in her head yet. The world and its descriptions are newer to her, she notices more, she feels more surprise. She isn’t so complicit in the power structures, so she can still question certain things that I, with or without realizing it, have long ago come to accept.

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At the center of the story is Selin’s friendship with Svetlana. What draws these two to each other?

I think it’s a combination of similarities and differences. On the one hand, they have a lot in common: their family backgrounds (Turkish, Serbian), their interest in Russian literature. Unlike many of their classmates, neither has her sights on med school or law school—in part because they have enough financial security to view literature as a viable life path. Both feel that there’s a lot at stake in their choices—they’re aware of having to accomplish something extraordinary in order to feel sufficient. Both spent their adolescence reading canonical novels, didn’t have boyfriends, but expect a lot from love, from men.

On the other hand, they have very different outlooks. Svetlana has faith in history, “excellence,” the known ways of doing things. Selin doesn’t. Svetlana is afraid of being lost; Selin is afraid of being trapped. They come to see each other as counterparts, as representatives of their different philosophies. I think that’s what they find so magnetic about each other. You can live only one life, but Selin gets to see what happens in Svetlana’s, as well as in her own.

That said, while writing “Either/Or,” I became more aware of the asymmetries in their relationship. It’s often easier for the “risk-taking” friend than for the “safe” one. Selin can depend on Svetlana to live a healthy life and get straight A’s, and it helps her view her own life as more artistic . . . but is that always fun for Svetlana?

Their conversations revolve, in part, around the question of the aesthetic life vs. the ethical life. Why is this distinction so important to Selin? Did you make a decision to live an aesthetic life when you were Selin’s age?

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