The Possessed: Academics Going to the Trades

06/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman succeeds at the almost impossible: the Professor-written, trade-press, paper-back of the otherwise undecipherable dissertation. As is true for much of the work I admire, and try to emulate, The Possessed makes its arguments about form in form. Batuman admires literary criticism (how it "builds upon the existing body of work to increase the sum total of human understanding"), has personally given up writing fiction (with its collaborative premise without a collaborative process), and is possessed by Russian fiction (for its plays with abstract, surreal, illogical meaning making and its hyper-cultural and linguistic specificity so obscure as to be indecipherable to all but the diligent detective-like comp-lit Scholar).

The resulting book looks and reads nothing like scholarly writing or even literary criticism for that matter; rather Batuman channels (like one possessed) the very absurd, stream-of-consciousness, descriptive style of those she loves and reads (great dead white male authors, contemporary Russians she meets on research sojourns, wacky international professors and grad students.) A skilled producer of what The New Yorker has asked from her ("what we want is a postcard, a snapshot, with lots of wonderful details"), Batuman's trade book about her academic writing jumps from wacky re-caps of Russian novels to her own equally madcap experiences in cross-cultural doctoral mis-understanding, or "half understanding," built "...out of associations and half-grasped words." The associations link up in the end, sort of, but this is one crazy ride from one randomly linked episode to another.

The scholarly version of her studies would require a (feigned) full understanding, as well as a fully coherent journey across her own text (easily gained through transitions), and behind the scenes of her leg work (footnotes). But these plodding, stuffy devices would both block her trade-worthy, breezy flow and ease, as well as her quirky and impressive imitation of the very novels she reads. Batuman says (from her dissertation) that novels are about a protagonist's "struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented given experiences, into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books." Given that Batuman's favorite books have fragmented, arbitrary, unlinkable plots, Batuman writes a trade book using this style. A hauntingly effective and affective compendium of strange Russian circumstances -- lived and textual -- Batuman writes descriptive non-fiction essays to enact what she learned from her Russian studies: "I had seen life and it hadn't added up to anything," The intended result is like the books she loves, "like Demons... a botched novel, an aggregation of mutilated drafts, lacking any unified meaning." I could to that, I suppose, but not nearly as well:

In college, I took a class called Continental Novels taught by the world's pre-eminent Professor/trade-writer Benjamin DeMott. Using a "modern," controversial, but beloved teaching technique developed at Amherst, we would "read" one 1000 page novel each week and attend a large lecture class where we would listen to DeMott discuss one randomly selected sentence. I loved it, the sophisticated savoir-faire, the life of the mind, and quickly learned that to succeed in the class, one best skim Brothers Karamozov, The Red and the Black, Anna Karenina, or Ulysses, taking the ride and catching the feeling. My partner-in-crime, the now successful writer, Steve Talty, and I drank champagne on a cool New England hill side in celebration of writing for magazines, reading continental novels, and the ways of being Ben DeMott. It was utterly romantic. Talty went on to write Mulatto America, a seeming companion or update to DeMott's The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Race (1995). Talty once told me he was married to a black woman, and I, too, had a relationship with one. Go figure. I wonder if DeMott did, too...Time for a little detective work.

While my scholarly training reading media texts has equipped me to look for internal contradictions and connections within and across texts (understood in my trade as "symptomatic" or "ideological" readings, see above), it seems trade publishing prefers its writers to engage in on the ground "detective work" where, if lucky, the writer susses out some small hidden key or amazing connection that will open the meaning of a text (hers and theirs). That's what my other fellow classmate, Dan Brown, figured out how to do! (Did he take DeMott?)

Most of Batuman's chapters describe some bizarre trek she gruelingly undertook (easily financed by gullible graduate funders), yet she confoundingly, incongruously speaks against this very form of research early in the book, thus, nothing or everything adding up in the end:

"His talk was poorly received. Someone had muttered: 'For an incompetent scholar, everything is a "detective" task.' It seemed that some of the documents that Platt had been unable to access in the archives had been published years ago. 'You can buy this in the Barnes & Noble,' someone said."

For the full post, with pix, go to my blog.