I often get jealous of writers who are getting good press. This week I’m jealous of Elif Batuman, a woman who’s younger than me and turned her graduate work in comparative literature at Stanford into a platform for public discussion of what’s beautiful and ridiculous in people’s obsessions with Russian books.
She’s just come out with The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them. According to a story I read online, she first published in The New Yorker when she 29. That was a dream that burst out beautifully: She had written an article for her university newspaper; someone at N+1 magazine asked her to write an article for them; and when The New Yorker editor David Remnick read that piece, he called Batuman up.
You can see she’s brilliant by reading some of her comparative literature PhD dissertation (click here) or by following her blog (click here). Critics largely love her but can’t find the right grand comparisons: “If Susan Sontag had coupled with Buster Keaton, their prodigiously gifted love child might have written [Batuman’s book],” writes Richard Richard Rayner in the Los Angeles Times. Batuman’s work “unfolds both comically and intellectually, as if Ms. Batuman were channeling Janet Malcolm by way of Woody Allen,” adds Dwight Garner in The New York Times. “Batuman has some of Dickens’s gift for vivid characterization, and her sharp wit and sly tone are reminiscent of Twain and Thurber,” says Charles Matthews in Stanford Magazine. So she holds the world inside her. I’m in love with her (go ahead and see her pictures here).
One reason I’m hurting with envy is that Batuman looks like she’s having fun. She’s very funny. She has the wild creativity that grows when you think your creativity is worthwhile. She builds sentences as if she’s playing games, describing one of her classmates as “a genial scion of the Kennedy family who always wrote the same story, about a busy corporate lawyer who neglected his wife” and about one of her boyfriends, coming off of a plane, who looked “as philosophical and good-humored as Snoopy.” Batuman writes her blog from what sounds like a humble, cozy home, where she hangs out with her “intern,” who you only know is her cat if you’re ironic like she is. “Dear readers!” she writes one morning on her blog, “I’ve been really delinquent with [my blog]. You must all have thought I was either dead, or not thinking anything. In fact, I’m writing a book!” (It’s hard to convey how funny Batuman is when I’m hunting for quotes with my envy. Take my word for it.)
My Batuman stalking this week has gotten me thinking about humor. I’m thinking about two types of humor. On one side is the humor that comes with confidence. When I was online dating a few years ago, I had to fill out a questionnaire that asked “how will your date know when you’re happy?” I answered, “When I’m funny. When I’m relaxed, I get funnier.” I think that’s often true for people: spontaneity fuels humor. It’s when you’re not cramped with worry, envy, or self-rebuke that wit stirs about. Batuman is uncommonly smart and still finds enough peace with herself to toss out oddball ideas.
On the other side, I think there’s a stiffer or more defensive side to humor. That is, I think we’re often funny when we’re defending against emotion (not feeling open to the world, or not at peace with the world, or not free). For instance, I also find that I try to be funny when I want to avoid thinking about something. As I’ve written before, I’m in training to be a psychologist--which means that I sit through too many meetings in which fellow psychologists “process” some event, which means talking about the emotions behind the emotions behind the emotions that caused something to happen. On days in which I find this “going deep” to be too far going, I blurt out something I think is witty, like “that’s just what my boyfriend said to me!” or “that’s when it got really hard!” (witty in the right context). These are sentences that shut conversation down when I’m tired. A joke can be an attack on experience: “I’m not going there. I’m too witty for it.”
I’m thinking humor’s strange, almost magical—the moat on either side of boredom. We're really funny when we're more suprising than our ordinary selves. Sometimes I’m funny when I’m open and hover above cliché. Sometimes I’m funny when I’m defended against conversation or cliché. In either case, humor is tied to creativity: a vacation from or fight with the mundane.
How do you best define humor? Do you believe humor is tied to creativity?
Have you read Elif Batuman yet? (I've been stalking without having read the book yet.)
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.