I am a fan of Marilynne Robinson. I have read all but one of her novels, and to be honest the reason I haven’t read the last is that I don’t want to have read all of her novels. But I have read Gilead twice and the most recent, and my favorite, Lila, three times. I have also read two of her previous collections of essays. I am more mixed on her essays. I had decided not to read Robinson’s most recent until I read James KA Smith’s review in Comment. His review is such a good example of what a review is supposed to be, and such an interesting comparison between Ta’Nehisi Coates and Robinson that I picked up the audiobook the same day.
But regardless of the praise from Smith, the problems I have with Robinson’s What We Are Doing Here is still the same basic problems I have with Robinson’s other essays. She is an incredible writer. Although the essays here, which were mostly talks given over the past two years edited together into a book, have an odd sort of repetition. She literally quotes the same quotes and cites the same ideas multiple times. Individually, I think most of them are great. But put together, they are somehow less than the individual parts.
Robinson is known as a writer. But her interests mean that she is writing about things that are outside of her academic background. She is fascinated by Puritans and Jonathan Edwards and how we talk and think about science and politics. She is clearly much smarter than I am and so I love being able to listen to her musings about things that I would not have ever considered apart from her. I really do love how wide ranging of a thinker she is. At one point she is talking about another author writing outside of their main field and quips that she isn’t going to complain about that since she frequently does the same thing.
But enough with the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards. I understand that she is interested and I think it is fascinating that she wants to, as a political and theological liberal, defend their reputations. Some of that is important. But she is limited in her analysis. I just finished reading Reconstructing the Gospel, which had a serious critique of our love of Puritans (because I read a number of conservative reformed Christians I read a lot of positive comments about the Puritans that maybe Robinson is just not reading.) Smith in his review notes the same problems. Robinson is talking about part of the story, but in pointing out some of the missing parts of how we understand Puritans, she also misses some of the more serious critiques. Yes, many of those that were serious abolitionists were of Puritan background. But many were not. And that same Puritan background may have supported theoretically the freedom of slaves, but wasn’t particularly interested in embracing former slaves into Northeastern society.
No essayist can do everything in a single essay. But over the past three books of essays she has had at least six essays on puritanism or Jonathan Edwards and hasn’t been able to find time to deal with their weakness in loving actual people, or in communicating their faith to future generations, or in critiquing the problems of a system that may have opposed slavery, but was willing to become rich though shipping and banking on the backs of those slaves.
Politically I am fairly liberal. I love her writing style and I even love her attempts at being a fair thinker and trying to push back against false narratives of history or dismissal of inconvenient alliances. But each time I read a book of her essays, even though I often enjoy many of the individual parts and I always learning something, I also tend to find her unpersuasive, even though I was likely already on her side before I started reading.
If an essay is at least in part designed to persuade, then I think that Robinson is a failed essayist. She is a great writer and an important novelist. But I think a failed essayist.