Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Marilynne Robinson: the Greatest Living Novelist?

This question is an experiment. Having just read Housekeeping and Gilead as well as her essays The Death of Adam, I have been babbling about Robinson ever since. I just want to provoke a few responses to the idea of her fictional ascendancy. Where does she stand amidst the Bloggerati?


  1. The NY Times said of Ames: The great danger of the clergyman in fiction is that his doctrinal belief will leak into the root system of the novel and turn argument into piety, drama into sermon. This is one of the reasons that, in the English tradition, from Henry Fielding to Barbara Pym, the local vicar is usually safely contained as hypocritical, absurd or possibly a bit dimwitted.
    Robinson challenges many accepted tenets of writing: that no Christian can write a good novel, that a novel must run the gamut of emotions and that grave prose is boring. I haven't read Housekeeping. I don't like the way she's involved in so much of the extraneous writer's guilds etc, as Muriel Spark was. I think it detracts. So your question isn't answered by me.

  2. The NYT reveals its intensely secular prejudices in a very religious country. I don't like the sound of all the writer's guild stuff. But I've know some truly horrible writers, I never held their vices against their writing. It would seem a little unfair, therefore to hold Robinson's virtues against hers. Also the very fact of a Christian artist these days is fascinating. One of the greatest of all directors, Andre Tarkovsky, is generally assessed for his part in the history of cinema. The fact that he was a very Russian type of religious visionary is ignored.

  3. It isn't hard to understand why Robinson should spend her days in writing workshops, presumably teaching. Every word she writes is informed by the same passion she perceives in her heroes from Bonhoeffer to Calvin: a philospohical point of departure based in wonder and an instinct that to understand anything we must live the ordinary human life, see its difficulties and beauties and serve daily, often shabby, human need in some way, be it as pastor or teacher. I suspect there's more for her in helping her students and living in a landscape she loves than striving to be part of an elite that is suspicious of her, while recognising her talents. I confess to rather liking her sermons, in whatever form. Genius has to be recognised collectively it seems. And she is ahead of her time.

  4. I'm not sure if she is the greatest living novelist. I am sure that she has written one of the best interior portraits of a Christian that I have ever read, and that in the two months since I read Gilead (and subsequently The Death of Adam and Housekeeping) I will be forcing her books on family and random strangers on the street. Three-quarters of my friends and family are receiving Gilead for Christmas.

    She is erudite, thoughtful, deeply passionate, and every word of hers that I've read has been a delight.