Thursday, April 21, 2011

Life on the pornographic fur carpet

Elif Batuman's essay at the Guardian on life after a bestseller: very strongly recommended! I did actually laugh out loud a few times, although really and truly I am so much this essay's target audience that it is perhaps not fair to generalize that everyone will love it as much as I did...

Here is a taste of its charms, though. The before:
I was young when I wrote "Babel in California." "As a 6ft-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew": I would never write something like that now. I would never have written something like that if I hadn't been a graduate student, riding around on a bicycle, falling asleep in libraries, living on lentils and feeling myself to be, rightly or wrongly, and despite the genuine kindness and generosity of most of my professors, perpetually enmeshed in a low-grade opposition with a world that considered me unprepared – by youth, if not nationality or anything more sinister – for dialogue with the great chroniclers of the human condition.

"Babel in California" appeared in the small – at the time, tiny – magazine, n+1 in 2005. It caught the attention of the editor of the New Yorker. In 2006, I published my first New Yorker article: a profile of a Thai champion kick-boxer who had opened a school in San Francisco. I started getting emails from literary agencies. I settled on my current agent, whom I like very much. My agent thought it would be nice if I wrote my first book about America's growing women's mixed martial arts scene; I, meanwhile, wanted to write a novelistic retelling of Dostoevsky's Demons, set in a Stanford-like literature department.
The after:
I particularly remember my first magazine photo shoot, where I had to lie on my back on a piece of fluorescent green imitation fur, clutching to my bosom a Russian-language volume of Dostoevsky. The photographer stood over me on a ladder, snapping pictures. His assistant, peering through thick plastic glasses at the digital screen, opined that the pictures were coming out "too sultry". She said I was showing "too much neck". Overcoming a sense of injustice – if I hadn't been lying on my back on some kind of pornographic fur carpet, maybe my neck wouldn't have looked so sultry – I changed into a higher collar. Because the cover of the Dostoevsky was so brown, we switched to a green leatherette Pushkin. "Look like you're reading," the photographer suggested. Opening the book at random, I found myself staring at the epilogue to "The Gypsies": "There is no defence against fate."

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