Tag Archives: Marilynne Robinson

Writing Our America

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

Scott Korb | Longreads | February 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)

 

The following essay is adapted from a talk presented at Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program. It includes advice from writers of “YA fiction, writers for television and stage, of novels and essays, investigative journalism, and criticism” on how we might produce meaningful work in the next four years.

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I often teach a piece of writing by David Foster Wallace, included originally as the introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Essays. He called the piece “Deciderization—2007,” a title that jabbed at the then-current president, George W. Bush, who, in the midst of his second term—in the midst of the Iraq war, which as fought had been lost—reminded the country during a press conference insisting he would not fire Donald Rumsfeld, whom he would later fire, that he, George W. Bush, was “The Decider.”

The moment seems far away now, but Bush’s choice of words here, it was said at the time, “struck the national funny bone.” Writing in the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg said,

On the Internet, it was memorialized to the tune of “I am the Walrus,” by the Beatles. (“I am me and Rummy’s he. Iraq is free and we are all together.”) On late-night television, the Decider emerged as a comic-book hero, courtesy of Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show.”

In other words, in making fun of Bush, Wallace was not alone and, as he was well aware, was far from the most high-profile or widely observed jabber. Opening the book’s introduction, he wrote, “I think it’s unlikely that anyone is reading this as an introduction.”

Most of the people I know treat Best American anthologies like Whitman Samplers. They skip around, pick and choose. There isn’t the same kind of linear commitment as in a regular book. … There’s a kind of triage. The guest editor’s intro is last, if at all.

This sense of being last or least likely confers its own freedoms.

When I’ve taught his introduction before I’ve tended to highlight how Wallace considers and reconsiders the essay form itself—“one constituent of the truth about the front cover,” he writes, “is that your guest editor isn’t sure what an essay even is.” This confusion is fun in a way that Wallace is often fun. It does what this particular writer tends to do—puts his own subjectivity front and center in an effort to pull a rug out from under us. What do you mean you don’t know what an essay even is?

Continuing on, Wallace then addresses his lack of both confidence and concern with the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—more fun for us—only to change course a moment later, explaining that he does care about such differences, but conceding that they’re “hard to talk about in a way that someone who doesn’t try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand.” At which point he dives into the part of the essay I’ve always been most interested in talking about with writing students, who tend—as I am—to be interested in how to do what writers are trying to do. What is writing supposed to feel like?

Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.

The intergenre debates that go on in our culture have been a great pleasure to me over the years. I like what journalist Jeff Sharlet says on the point: “Fiction’s first move is imagination; nonfiction’s is perception.” And to be sure, I’m always delighted to hear from someone about the abyss under poetry’s tightrope. Read more…

The Fears of Our Nation: President Obama Interviews Marilynne Robinson

The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?

Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know—I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know.

But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—“Love thy neighbor as thyself”—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.

The President: Well, that’s one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as if it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right?

Robinson: Right.

At The New York Review of Books, President Obama interviews Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, a conversation he requested to have after becoming a fan of her novels. As a companion to this interview, read her recent essay, “Fear,” a rumination on American history, religious history, guns, violence, war, and her deeply held Christian beliefs.

Read the interview

 

 

Marilynne Robinson on Writing and Discipline

INTERVIEWER

Do you keep to a schedule?

ROBINSON

I really am incapable of discipline. I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to live through the time it takes for it to go up the chimney. Maybe it’s a question of discipline, maybe temperament, who knows? I wish I could have made myself do more. I wouldn’t mind having written fifteen books.

INTERVIEWER

Even if many of them were mediocre?

ROBINSON

Well, no.

-From novelist Marilynne Robinson’s 2008 Paris Review conversation with Sarah Fay.

Read the interview

The Unanswered Question of Race in Edgar Allan Poe’s Writing

It is seldom mentioned that Poe came of age in a slave society, in a household where slaves were present. Poe does nothing to draw attention to the fact. An account of the business interests of Poe’s foster father, John Allan, quoted by the biographer Jeffrey Meyers, notes that he and his partner “as a side issue were not above trading in horses, Kentucky swine from the settlements, and old slaves whom they hired out at the coal pits till they died.” This last item suggests that Poe might not have been particularly sheltered from an awareness of the ugliness of the system. Charles Baudelaire has encouraged the notion that Poe was an aristocrat manqué. But John Allan was a successful immigrant merchant—by no means the type of gentleman planter who stood in the place of aristocrat in the self-conception of antebellum Virginia. Poe’s aristocrats are surrounded by mists and parapets, never by a society or an economy, and they are always the decadent last flowering of an endless lineage, not offspring of the parvenus of colonial settlement. With the single exception of “The Gold-Bug,” Poe did not write about the South, at least explicitly. But in Pym he does address the matter of race, an issue of great currency at the time.

-From an essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson in The New York Review of Books. In it, Robinson explores the unknowability of Poe and his work, and the difficulty in interpreting Poe’s unusual and only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which, among other things, is considered to be one of the inspirations for Moby Dick.

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