Don’t “murder your darlings”


elifElif Batuman describes her circuitous literary career path in “Confessions of an Accidental Literary Scholar,” here, in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Her comments on the state of the American short story:

I realized that I would greatly prefer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: “Show, don’t tell”; “Murder your darlings”; “Omit needless words.” As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.

I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns—like entries in a contest to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words. The first sentences were crammed with so many specificities, exceptions, subverted expectations, and minor collisions that one half expected to learn they were acrostics, or had been written without using the letter e. They all began in medias res. Often, they answered the “five W’s and one H.”

This month’s article in Stanford Magazine describes how the editor of the prestigious magazine n+1 asked her to write after reading her piece in the Harvard Advocate. When “Babel in California,” about a conference at Stanford, appeared in 2005, it caught the attention of Slavophile David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, who commissioned her to write a piece on Thai kickboxing.

elif2Describing her turn to the ivory tower, she writes: “I stopped believing that ‘theory’ had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?”

Not surprisingly then, her new book is called The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this month.

She’ll be giving a reading at 7.30 p.m. on Thursday, March 11, at Kepler’s.  You can read a bit from her new book — “The Old Uzbeks Had a Word for It” — at the bottom of the page here.

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