Conversations

A Failed Book Club

How does one decide when to give up and stop reading?

Elif Batuman, Ama Codjoe
Illustrated portrait of Elif Batuman and Ama Codjoe
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

This spring, the poet and Yale Review contributing editor Ama Codjoe asked the novelist and nonfiction writer Elif Batuman to read a book and discuss it together. They picked Summer Will Show, a 1936 novel by the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. The book follows the life of Sophia Willoughby, a wealthy Englishwoman whose unfaithful husband decamps to Paris before the Revolution of 1848. When Willoughby’s children die, she heads to Paris, too—and befriends her husband’s mistress.

As they read, however, Codjoe and Batuman found the book’s anti-Semitism and racism “difficult to stomach,” and neither of them could finish it. The discussion they had was therefore not limited to the novel itself, but rather a broader conversation about what to accept—or not accept—in reading, when to stop, and how writers treat complex issues like race, culture, religion, and gender.
The Editors


Ama Codjoe We started reading English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1936 novel Summer Will Show after a long and playful consideration of other options, ranging from detective novels to essay collections. The novel depicts dramatic changes in the life of the main character, Sophia Willoughby, an Englishwoman of aristocratic birth, and, relatedly, in the political world around her, including the February Revolution of 1848 in Paris. But as soon as I started reading, I found the anti-Semitism and racism embedded in the descriptions of Jewish characters and characters of color to be offensive, distracting, and difficult to stomach. I think I expected the book to redeem itself—outside of plot, in a way that would reward me as a writer—but there came a point when I didn’t want to finish it, or even if I did, I didn’t want to have a book-review-style conversation about it. I floated the idea, then, that we could talk about moments when we decide to read on and moments when we decide to put a book down. I got further along in the book because we were reading it together. I would have abandoned it earlier had we not formed a kind of pact.

Did you finish reading Summer Will Show?

Elif Batuman Oh, man. I suggested this book because I just did a podcast about politicization and the novel with Merve Emre. I was really excited to talk to her because I had never read or spoken to another Turkish-American literary critic who studied “the novel.” (Until a couple of years ago, I had never heard of, much less met, another published Turkish-American writer. Now I know of multiple cool younger Turkish-American novelists!) For some time, I’ve been struggling with how to write about personal and political life at the same time. In 2013, when I was living in Istanbul, there was an unprecedentedly large protest movement (the Gezi Park protests, which turned into a nationwide anti-government movement, were started by environmentalists reacting against the destruction of an Istanbul park). Everyone was going around reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. I tried to reread it, but was put off by the gender dynamics. Still, I really liked the idea of a political event interrupting a literary work and changing its genre. I thought it would be amazing to be able to do that in a book.

In our conversation, Merve mentioned Summer Will Show, John A. Williams’s The Man Who Cried I Am, and Sentimental Education as novels she might assign for a class about political novels. I had never heard of Warner, but when I saw her book was a New York Review of Books paperback, by and about a lesbian, set during 1848, and written during the 1930s, I was like “Sign me up!” I had been on the lookout for a formal key to put together my backlog of political and personal experience. What if this feminist-sounding 1930s version of Sentimental Education was it?

Alas, I had a lot of trouble getting into the book. I was confused by Warner’s attitude toward the protagonist, Sophia Willoughby, a propertied young mother who recently had broken with her philandering husband. Sophia had had a traumatic upbringing (“crusts, cold water, cold rooms, scanty clothing,” “whippings,” and being held over a limekiln to treat whooping cough). She is passing this legacy on full strength to her own children (there is a long early scene in which she terrorizes her kids by getting some guy to hold them over a kiln so they can inhale lime fumes). We’re clearly meant to find this upsetting and unsympathetic. But I’m not sure Warner realizes just how unsympathetic a character Sophia is. As far as I can tell, her world view is defined by the idea that her own (infuriating) lack of freedom can only be compensated for by depriving others of their freedom and by “exercis[ing] her authority.” She mistreats animals and children, colonial subjects, Caspar (the mixed-race “bastard” who ends up in her care), Jewish people, poor people, etc.

I am assuming that, because of the events of 1848, she’s going to change her mind about poor people. And since it’s clear she’s about to embark on an affair with the “strumpet Jewess,” I guess we will get some nuance there. But, having read the first fifty pages, I’m pretty sure Caspar is a goner. Furthermore, given how few people in 1848 were thinking about modifying patriarchal family dynamics as a program of social change, I’m not optimistic that Sophia is going to reach a very advanced stage in her thinking. Nor is there anything in the voice or form that compels me to keep going, so I do not plan to finish this book.

AC My camel/straw moment came about seventy-five pages from the end, when the narrator essentially spelled out the fate of the only character of color in the novel. I felt protective toward this character, and my reaction was “No.” I’ve felt this before, for example during a certain scene in Jesmyn Ward’s brilliant Sing, Unburied, Sing—before I knew it, I had thrown the book away from me, scared of what might happen to the characters I had grown to care about. But then I picked it back up. It’s hard to articulate why or how, but Ward had earned my trust.

What, if any, parameters or considerations have you articulated to yourself about outdated and offensive language or characterization in a text?

In the end, what interests me is that I have the agency to accept the whole of the literary canon as “mine”—even in instances when the language may exclude or harm me—and the freedom to choose the terms in which I participate and learn from any reading experience.

EB I have more parameters for offensive language and characterization than I used to, and more viscerally so with gender than with race. I always had some threshold for gender stuff—because I felt quite polarized as a kid between my mother and my father. (In my parents’ long custody battle over me, an only child, my dad’s lawyer cast my mom as an immoral person.) But I didn’t grow up with any kind of identity as a person of color. My parents moved to the US from Turkey in the 1970s. They’re both scientists, and their political thinking—secularist, “modernizing,” and pro-science—was formed by the ideology of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic. Atatürk abolished a lot of the “backward” markers of Islam and Turkishness in favor of more “universal” (i.e., Western) values. People like my parents did not see this ideology as being at all race-related—but it can certainly be seen that way. And I ask, could Atatürk have managed to make Turkey into a West-facing NATO member nation if most Turkish people hadn’t, basically, looked white?

But for a lot of teachers, scientists, and other professionals in my parents’ generation, there was an idea that Turkey had finally become a member of the great universal civilization. (There is a famous quote from Atatürk that “there is only one civilization,” and you can join it or not.) Now, at last, Turkish people could pursue truth and excellence, free from provincialisms like nationality, ethnicity, and race. This belief jibed with 1990s ideology in the US—for example, Francis Fukuyama’s idea of “the end of history,” according to which mankind had reached an ideological endpoint and now just had to sit back and wait for universalized Western liberal democracy to penetrate every corner of the globe. To make a long story short, I grew up thinking of myself as a person for whom ethnicity and race weren’t important. I wanted to be a writer, and to study the most universal/greatest writing, which, kind of hilariously, I decided was Russian literature. I thought I had to do so in the most institutionally sanctioned and rigorous way and get to whatever unassailable status my mother aspired to. (My mother, a physician, graduated from Turkey’s top medical school—which few Americans have heard of—and came here and successfully started her own lab. Then she hit some kind of institutional glass ceiling at the university, where she was one of very few women/immigrants/Muslims, and was more or less pressured into early retirement.)

There’s a lot of trash-talking about Turks in European novels, and as a kid I was always proud of not being hurt by it, of feeling like I was seeing beyond history and being “objective.” I didn't see the pernicious nature of “objectivity”—the way it’s only the people who are doing okay in the current power structure who can afford to be objective, and thus to discount everyone who isnt doing okay as “biased.”

AC Seeing beyond history was never a fantasy I embraced or imagined for myself. And history is unsettling. I have noticed that people who are doing okay—or very well—in the current power structure are also accustomed to a kind of comfort (as opposed to a life free from suffering, tragedy, or pain) that I am accustomed to not having (which isn’t to say I don’t have joys, privileges, or luxuries). Being used to being uncomfortable and being accustomed to being discomforted has made me the kind of reader—and writer, I hope—who can hold a lot at once, and comfortably.

There’s something I’ve been turning over since we began this dialogue: the analogy of this reading experience to a critique of white feminism. I mentioned to you that I was tempted to read British literary critic and biographer Claire Harman’s foreword to the 2009 edition of Summer Will Show to see how she framed the offensive language and characterization. Curiosity ultimately won out, but when I read it, I was disappointed to find that there was no mention of this issue at all. The absence of an acknowledgement or critique reminded me of white feminism’s history of exclusion and silence around the lives and conditions of women who are transgender, disabled, working-class, and/or of color, and of the power of intersectional feminism—how a reader can hold critique alongside curiosity and then make a decision about whether or not she wants to continue reading, a decision based not on binaries but on intelligence, as in one’s ability to use experience and knowledge.

EB I have been thinking a lot about this! I really wish “intersectionality” had a better name or was somehow presented more as the thing itself, not a side issue.

I am the kind of (idealistic, utopian) person who thinks all our structural problems are caused by one thing. Historically, political awareness has come to different groups at different times, through different experiences—but it’s not going to get solved so long as the minority in power (rich white men, in America) is able to view itself as “universal” and make everyone else feel like warring special interests.

AC Just as it seems inevitable that a writer must grapple with questions regarding what, if anything, is “off limits” to publish or whose permission, if anyone’s, she wants before she publishes, the reader is engaged in a value-laden activity that demands choices and accountability, if only to oneself. In the end, what interests me is that I have the agency to accept the whole of the literary canon as “mine”—even in instances when the language may exclude or harm me—and the freedom to choose the terms in which I participate and learn from any reading experience.

Does our conversation about historical and political novels and social identity relate in any way to Either/Or, your forthcoming second novel?

EB In order to tell you about the novel, I have to talk about the white feminist I am perhaps the most impressed by, Shulamith Firestone. In The Dialectic of Sex (1970) she wrote that Marx and Engels were right about history being class warfare—but that the original class warfare was biological and gendered, not economic. That is, the first division of labor was reproductive; that was the original division between people who act versus people who are acted on. There is a chapter in that book (which she published when she was 25!, so it is not totally un-confused) in which she talks about another key division, the one between adults and children. She argues that misogyny is a cycle of women taking out their rage (at men/social oppression) onto their children, and children growing up to take out their rage (at their mothers/adult oppression) onto women. I found this to be more powerful argument than the one about men and women (which leads her into trouble in a later chapter on race).

After reading Firestone, I started to check if anyone else had talked about the political effects of the disenfranchisement of children. That subject is my new obsession. Possibly the coolest thing I learned about was a 1975 paper called “Childism” by Chester Pierce, a Black psychiatrist who also invented the term “microaggression” and was responsible for people of color being on Sesame Street. In it, he writes that both racism and sexism originate in systemic/structural cruelty to children, which leads all people (ex-children) to identify power with good and to want to exercise it over others. In her mind-blowing 1981 book, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, the psychologist Alice Miller says something similar: that the problem with leftist or “liberating” movements is that they always replicate existing power structures because they never address the fact that children identify with the adults who caused them pain. The lack of awareness of this dynamic is why even revolutionary ideologies end up with a “parent” at the top, one who can’t be questioned, must be obeyed, and must be loved no matter what.

Either/Or, to be released by Penguin Press in 2022, is set in 1996–97 and is an attempt to dramatize some of the insights of Firestone and Adrienne Rich (especially her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality”). Both Firestone and Rich write about the way liberating discourses are silenced, trivialized, or otherwise kept from the people whom they would benefit. I really identified with this, because I encountered those texts for the first time in my late thirties.

I wanted to reconstruct how I, a person who wasn’t stupid or incurious and didn’t grow up under a rock, nonetheless managed to emerge from the 1990s as an apolitical person, thanks largely to “literature.” My passionate sense of injustice was redirected into “literary”/novelistic values, like showing all the sides and maintaining a humane attitude toward everyone’s unreasonableness. (How proud I was of being able to identify the manifestations of kindness that turn up everywhere, even in a prison! When I could have been trying to eliminate prisons . . . !) It’s also about how I aestheticized my own objectification/consumption in relationships with men, because I thought that was the “universal” and true content of novels. But now I am writing the novels!

I wanted to reconstruct how I, a person who wasn’t stupid or incurious and didn’t grow up under a rock, nonetheless managed to emerge from the 1990s as an apolitical person, thanks largely to “literature”.

AC I find that one of the most pleasurable ways to read is to let one book lead to another, and I like having concentrated periods of obsession. I look forward to reading a constellation of books sparked by your new novel.

Before we go, tell me about your reading habits. Do you usually read multiple books at the same time? Do you finish every book you start? Where is your favorite place to read?

EB I used to finish most of the books I started. Now I abandon books all the time—either if I feel like I “get the idea” or if anything in it starts me on an inner cycle of imaginary arguing. I feel more protective of my psyche than I used to. I feel less tough—and less identified with my own cognitive or imaginative toughness. For this reason, I also don’t reread as much as I used to.

During the quarantine, I got into audiobooks, and I discovered this brain hack: I could fall asleep while listening, eliminating the downtime to think my awful thoughts. But this hack depends on finding the right audiobook, otherwise you never fall asleep.

I mostly stopped reading physical books in the 2010s because I was moving around, and my stuff was in storage. Later, I read Marie Kondo and threw out all the physical books that were digitally accessible. This brought me a lot of relief, even though I know it sounds very unappealing to most writers. Everything is on the Device now.

I suspect that a lot of writers used the past year to finish overdue manuscripts, based on my getting several a week to “endorse.” They are all queued up on the Device, which makes turning it on daunting. It feels hard to justify reading anything for “fun.”

Either/Or took me four years to write, and I am very conscious that soon I will have to send it out for endorsements. I get this nightmare vision that we’re all in a cycle of foisting our books onto people who would rather be doing their own writing than reading anyone else’s! For a while now, I’ve felt depressed about reading. What about you?

AC I figure we only have so many reading hours in life, and they are not to be wasted. My reading life feels like a lush place untouched by obligation. (I suspect the deeper one gets into the field of writing, the harder it is to be in that place, but I am still in the quiet of “emerging.”) Also, I read a lot of poetry, and poetry collections are easy to finish. Even if I’m not super captivated by a poetry book, I usually keep reading to see if there’s a spark, a question, or a prompt I can fold into my writing life. I like to have whole days I can devote to reading, but mostly I read at night before bed or in the morning to ease into the day. My bed is my favorite reading place. And it won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve never read a book electronically. I heart my public library, the Kingsbridge branch of the New York Public Library (shout out to Dennis, my favorite librarian).

For decades I followed my own rule that I would buy only those books I knew I wanted to reread (not counting those I bought at conferences and poetry readings). But over the last few years, and certainly when the pandemic disrupted my ability to borrow books, I have been ordering online from independent bookstores.

EB I did quickly consume and enjoy two books you recommended in our recent email correspondence: We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Katilyn Greenidge and Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, which I got on audiobook. That one was definitely not for before bed—it was for listening to on anger-walks.

AC I’m excited to read Either/Or and thrilled that this conversation invoked Adrienne Rich. In her works, as in Audre Lorde’s, we get arguments, poetry, and arguments within poetry that feel prescient, new, and startlingly clear half a century later. One of my favorite Rich lines is: “poetry / isn’t revolution but a way of knowing / why it must come.” May the knowing why it must come be offered through reading and writing again and again.

Elif Batuman is the author of The Idiot, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. She is also the author of The Possessed, a collection of comical interconnected essays about Russian literature. She has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010.
Ama Codjoe is the author of Bluest Nude and Blood of the Air, winner of the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and many others. She is a contributing editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
June 14, 2021

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