It might seem that there is not much left to say regarding Elif Batuman’s debut novel: since its release in March of last year The Idiot has received generous coverage from nearly every literary-oriented publication in the United States. By now the reviews have long been in. There was the rave from Cathleen Schine in the New York Review of Books, and the extensive, though not wholly uncritical, assessment by the New York Times: Dwight Garner confessed in the Books section that The Idiot left him tired and thirsty, while Parul Sehgal, for the Book Review, found it stellar and relatable. In an end-of-year summation, New York magazine book critic Christian Lorentzen named The Idiot the third-best book of 2017—“exquisitely droll,” “a stylistic tour de force.”
Meanwhile, both Evan Kindley and Molly Fischer have explored, in their respective reviews for the Nation and Harper’s, the link between Batuman’s novel and her essays on American fiction (most notably “Short Story & Novel” for n+1 in 2006 and “Get a Real Degree” in the London Review of Books in 2010), in which the author scolded, elaborately, with humor, and at length, the entire literary field. Debuting in n+1 in 2005 with a weighty essay meditating on the legacies of Isaac Babel, Batuman sprang into the world of publishing fully formed as a critic who could seamlessly combine the concepts and reach of academic scholarship with a keen sense of humor and a willingness to declare her dislikes openly. She cast particular blame on MFA programs for fostering a dull, anemic relation to literary language and failing to properly teach literary classics, particularly her beloved nineteenth-century French and Russian novels.
Kindley and Fischer both argued that, in effect, Batuman the artist practiced what Batuman the critic preached. Acknowledging (as almost all reviews did) that The Idiot has trouble maintaining narrative thrust, they concluded that its lack of plot was intentional and therefore justified. “The Idiot may be an imperfect work of literature—a long, personal, and, in some sense, pointless novel—but it is deliberately, conspicuously so,” writes Kindley. Fischer, in a review more attuned to The Idiot’s feminine dimension, concludes similarly: “In The Idiot, [Batuman] has heeded the rallying cry she issued in n+1: ‘Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things. Dear young writers, write with dignity, not in guilt. How you write is how you will be read.’” The dignity of the novel lay in its refusal to have something so vulgar as a direction. Furthermore, this lack of direction could be framed as the hallmark of a larger movement. Kindley placed Batuman in the company of “autofiction” writers such as Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard, who intentionally reduced the distance between author and protagonist to a bare minimum: their first-person narrators, too, were endowed with the same prodigious sensibility as their authors and their narratives also tracked, in an aimless, journal-like fashion, the details of their authors’ lived experience.