Marilynne Robinson, Obama’s favourite contemporary novelist, says we all have a duty to raise our intellectual game
As a child Marilynne Robinson was enthralled by writing poetry. As an adult, she says, it has never been quite the same. ‘During a thunderstorm or something like that I would write some crazy poem and then hide it. It was wonderful.’ She hid the poetry under her mattress. ‘My mother would come in to change the sheets and all this poetry would fly out,’ she recalls. ‘She would say: “Why are you hiding your poetry?” I’ve never known why. But I’m still like that. I’m pretty secretive about anything I write.’
She says she’s two-thirds of the way through her fourth novel. When I ask more about it, she laughs and almost puts her head in her hands. ‘I can’t talk about it. I can’t… For some reason or another that just destroys fiction when you talk about it prematurely, at least for me.’
Robinson has never published any of her poems. ‘I grew up and my poetry really did not,’ she says. But her novels are the kind that a poet might write, representing fairly everyday moments as moving and sad and beautiful.
Her first, Housekeeping, came out in 1980; it took 24 years before she wrote a second, Gilead, which won the Pulitzer. In between the two she raised a family and taught creative writing in Iowa. More recently, she has been prolific, producing two collections of essays and another prize-winning novel, Home, over four years. She is divorced and her two children are grown up and married, so she is free to work; plus, she doesn’t do leisure time. ‘If I’m working on something I want to be working on, nothing could interest me less than leisure. My down time is basically when I don’t know what to write next.’
She has, in the past, spoken of herself as ‘a solitary’. She says longish periods of solitude are necessary for the concentration that’s required in her work. She also says that if she can’t ‘be by myself to think things through at length I get really unhappy’.
Her work, she says, is driven solely by interest. ‘It’s like something consuming… You get something on your mind and you just have to think about it and it amplifies itself. That’s motivation in itself, without any reference to the outside world.’
Robinson says, apologetically, that she doesn’t read anything light: her preference is for ‘hard, heavy old things’. ‘[Books] that don’t make that kind of demand on me bore me,’ she says. At the same time, she is gripped by contemporary debates, and keen to have her say in them. Her latest collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, includes an elegant attack on austerity, which she casts as an obsessive ideology nibbling away at America’s great institutions.
She is visiting England for a series of talks on her Pulitzer-winning Gilead. Later this month, she is setting off again, this time for Greece, to give a lecture about theology and the economic crisis. ‘My solitary life is not exclusively a solitary life,’ she says. ‘I like to come out and look at the world and talk with people and all that sort of thing… It’s just a matter of trying to find a liveable balance.’
She is worried about Greece, she says, and about the power of ‘jittery markets’ to topple elected governments. ‘The implications for all of us are pretty dark if this becomes how the world works,’ she says.
She does not believe the markets are wise — in fact, she says, they seem to require ‘no thought at all’. Their dominance is bad news in civilisation terms, too, she argues. ‘You can’t imagine [the market] as inspiring literature, no music is going to be composed around it and no one is going to pick it up in 200 years and say, “my goodness”. There will be no Sophocles of contemporary understanding insofar as it’s dominated by this kind of economic non-thinking.’
Robinson also has enormous interest in science and theology (an odd pairing, some might say). She subscribes to Scientific American and describes herself as a Calvinist, though she attends a Congregationalist church, like Obama (indeed, he once listed Gilead as his favourite book on Facebook). She is dismissive of the New Atheists, saying their arguments are ‘bad science’. When I ask about them, she compares them to ‘the mockers and scorners’ that theologians wrote about in the Middle Ages. ‘It seems to have been a continuous voice, [but] it has this funny way of bursting on the world as if, “Oh, we’re the first people to ever dare say this”.’
She says intelligent criticism of religion would do religious culture ‘a huge favour and ought to be listened to’. I ask if she has read any such critics and she sighs. ‘Let me think,’ she says. Pause. ‘No.’ She lets out a laugh. ‘But then perhaps I haven’t exhausted the literature.’
If Robinson is critical of New Atheists, she is critical, too, of much religion. I bring up same-sex marriage, and she says she finds the campaigns against it ‘absolutely bizarre’. In the Bible, she says, there are just two or three injunctions against gay relationships (which ‘can be interpreted as perhaps prohibitions of pagan religious behaviour’) while there are hundreds against the abuse of the poor. ‘Now, how does it happen that huge religious establishments are hung up on two or three verses, while the status of the poor declines and declines? It seems to me a perfect illustration of the tendency of religion to discredit itself by finding small opportunities to be mean when there are large opportunities to be generous.’
One recurrent concern of Robinson’s is that our intellectual culture should be better. She talks of how, when she was a graduate, everyone said they were Marxist, but hardly anyone had read any Marx. It’s similar with Calvin, she says — people pick up a ‘culturally epidemic sneer’ without having the slightest idea what he wrote. ‘In a way, the stronger the cultural consensus about a figure, the less likely anyone will inquire.’
Thus, Robinson says, ‘the great wheels of civilisation turn around terms that mean nothing, [that] have no core’. She urges people to read what great writers said themselves. ‘People have surrendered a certain degree of intellectual autonomy that they ought not to have surrendered because we need everybody’s best thought.’
Otherwise, she says, we have a discourse that is ‘not worthy of people’. ‘The planet is fragile. The opportunity to be a living human being is extremely limited. People ought not just to be mouthing off.’