The PEN Ten with Elif Batuman
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Randa Jarrar talks with Elif Batuman, staff writer for The New Yorker. Batuman’s first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, has been translated into eleven languages. She is working on a novel.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
Really early in life. When I was three and barely literate, I kept a “diary” by dictating it to my aunt. My aunt was really kind and wrote everything down. On my tenth birthday, I remember being really upset because I had been alive for a decade but hadn’t published a book yet.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
I wish there was a way “literary” writers could work collaboratively, like scientists or like other kinds of artists. I don’t see why there’s no gray area between “Every word I put on paper sprang one hundred percent out of my own exclusive head” and “stealing.” Why don’t writers cover each other’s books, the way musicians cover each other’s songs? I would love to rewrite an Agatha Christie novel—maybe The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But I would want to give her credit for her amazing plot!
When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?
It’s OK to eject the person shouting “fire” from a crowded theater in which there is no fire.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
I’m actually obsessed by obsessions. They’re all interesting! The tax code is boring, but being obsessed with the tax code is interesting. The form is automatically interesting, regardless of the content. I guess it’s like if you really loved limericks.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
When I was living in Turkey, I saw colleagues make politically daring statements—statements that could, and sometimes did, get them fired or detained or worse. As a U.S. citizen, however, I always felt that I had less to fear than others—less at stake than others. This was often an uncomfortable feeling. But I’m very grateful to the U.S. for the protection it affords its citizens.
The times when I have felt it took “courage” for me to write something have generally been in private life—times when I feared that my writing would hurt someone’s feelings. I often experience this fear. Sometimes it prevents me from going forward; sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t feel particularly “daring,” though, when I override it. It’s more just a wearying cost-benefit calculation.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
To work hard and to pay attention.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I think literature has a collective purpose, which is to process the reality of lived experience, in much the same way that dreams process the reality of waking life. Like dreams, literature can express truths that can’t be expressed by any other means.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
I think Animal Farm, because it’s written in such a way that even an idiot can understand.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
I don’t know! I worry about this sometimes, for myself. I mean, it’s good to be observant—writers are supposed to be observant—but it’s bad to be creepy. A big part of writing is treading the fine line between creepy and observant.