Marilynne Robinson is a fantastic novelist. Her most recent novel, Lila, is among my favorite novels ever and I recently re-read her award winning novel Gilead and enjoyed it even more the second time.
But Marilynne Robinson the essayist I am not sure of. She is an incredible writer. Her ability to string words together holds true whether she is writing non-fiction or fiction. But being an essayist requires more than a gift with words.
Part of my frustration with her is that her politics are always present. That is fairly natural since most of the time, the subject actually is politics. Her earlier book of essays, When I was a Child I Read Books, was much more political than this collection. In many ways I am not sure why her politics bothers me so much, because much of the time I agree with them.
I am not always sure why these essays were written. Some of them were probably cathartic or were addressing a specific issue, and I guess that shouldn’t matter. But I was just not engaged through many of them. There are snatches of brilliance throughout the book. (As I said, she can put together a phrase.) And part of the issue is that I listened to the book. For both this an When I was a Child, I picked up the audiobook because the Kindle or paper editions were so expensive. It is odd, in this case the audiobook was half the price of the kindle book. I think that if I read another set of her essays I will check them out of the library.
That being said, what I do find interesting about Robinson is her Calvinism. She is clearly Calvinist in the way that Abraham Kuyper and the covenantal Calvinists are Calvinist (and not the way that neo-Calvinists like John Piper and Albert Mohler are Calvinists.) The focus is on covenant not the five solas or the TULIP. And so she speaks with great respect for Calvin and has clearly read him carefully and widely. Her essays on fear or grace or human limitations are all theologically rich and intellectually helpful.
But more than several of the essays wander away from their purpose. I never question her intuitive wisdom or her sheer brilliance. I do question her background into some of the areas that she writes. It is not that I think she should not write about international affairs or economics, but when she does, I am far from convinced that she is writing about things she fully understands. Or at least if she does understand them she seems to create strawmen opponents that maybe because of the length of the essay seem too quickly demolished. After I finished, I read a few reviews. And I think that this quote from the Boston Globe summarizes my general thoughts well,
These examples are in some sense nit-picking, but they convey an underlying attitude — that those who don’t share her world view are blinkered or ignorant — at odds with Robinson’s message of Christian charity and grace. I’m being hard on this fine writer because (full disclosure) I share her liberal political convictions and agree with almost everything she says about the current mean-spirited state of the American polity and the way a certain kind of Christianity has been twisted to justify it. But I regret to say that there’s a smug, self-satisfied tone to her writing here that too many Americans associate with elitist liberalism. It detracts from Robinson’s stirring rejection of cynicism and passivity, her ringing affirmation of “the profound and unique sacredness of human beings” that leads her to support government aid to the poor, gay marriage, and other progressive causes that have right-wing Christians thundering condemnation. Robinson’s variety of Christian faith is appealingly humane and broad-minded, but the dodgy way she often explicates it makes “The Givenness of Things” inspiring and infuriating in roughly equal measure.