“Why wouldn’t you call it a novel?”
Manuscript of Dostoevsky’s Demons
Guernica: Given that you’ve established your career as a nonfiction writer—2010’s The Possessed as well as your work as a staff writer at The New Yorker—why did this particular story need to be told as a novel?
Elif Batuman: Well, it’s actually kind of an accident that I established my career as a nonfiction writer. From childhood I wanted to be a novelist. I actually wrote the first draft of The Idiot in my early twenties, many years before either The Possessed or The New Yorker. In fact, I originally wanted The Possessed to be a novel: I was pitching it as a fictional retelling of Dostoevsky’s Demons [often translated as The Possessed] set in the Russian literature program of a Stanford-like university. For some reason, nobody wanted to publish this novel. There was more interest in a memoir about my own Dostoevskian experiences studying Russian literature. The basic idea was: nobody wants to read a whole novel about depressed grad students, but with a nonfiction book, some people might read it in the hope of learning about the Russian novels they never had time to read themselves. It was supposed to be sort of a time-saving device.
It isn’t actually obvious to me that people are less able to learn about Russian novels from reading a novel about grad students than from reading a nonfiction book about grad students. But anyway, that’s how The Possessed ended up nonfiction. With The Idiot, I wrote it first and then told everyone it was a novel, and was really relieved that nobody told me to call it a memoir just because it’s about someone with the same national/educational/cultural background as me.
My feeling is that, if you’re writing a book where you want to make a positive truth claim—you know, like, “This really happened, and it’s important that it really happened, and you can call up everyone mentioned in it on the phone and they will tell you it’s true”—then you should absolutely call it nonfiction or memoir. If you don’t want to make that claim—if that’s not what’s important to you; if you’re more interested in storytelling and interiority and interpersonal relationships than in objective, checkable facts about the world—then why wouldn’t you call it a novel, and take advantage of what that gets you, of the extra freedom, of belonging to the tradition of the novel?