An interview with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author about her recent collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books
We tend to speak of democracy as though it were a precious heirloom, something we were lucky enough to be handed by our forefathers. In a new collection of essays, Marilynne Robinson critiques this passive stance, insisting that democracy is an ongoing negotiation that requires creativity, compassion, and vigilance. When I Was a Child I Read Books is the fourth book of nonfiction for the novelist, whose bestselling Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.
The reason democracy is so difficult, Robinson says, is because human beings are so given to fractious quarreling. We demonize those who do not share our values or priorities, and we ostracize (at best) the groups we take to be dissimilar. She begins the book's preface with several lamenting quotations from Whitman's essay Democratic Vistas : "These savage, wolfish parties alarm me," he intoned in 1870. "Owning no law but their own will, [they are] more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood."
In 2012, not much has changed. But it is our "difficult obligation" to celebrate our differences, Robinson suggests, because the minute we dehumanize our opponents is the moment we cease espousing true democracy. She reminds us that the American experiment is grounded in radical humanism: a conviction that every voice, no matter how small or how troubling, should be considered. "To identify sacred mystery with every individual experience, every life." she writes, "...is to arrive at democracy as an ideal."
Though the essays take different approaches and subjects, they have an implicit thesis: That when we expand our reverence for humanity, we increase our commitment to democracy. And its logical corollary: When we diminish our admiration for species, democracy suffers. As she works, Robinson shows a remarkable ability to breathe new life into topics that have calcified into staunchly opposed stances. "Freedom of Thought," for instance, proposes that we should not be content with religious dogma or scientific orthodoxy. In her view, good science and good religion both expand questions—still unsolved, by the way—about who we are and why we are here.
I spoke with Robinson in her office at the University of Iowa, where she teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop (she was my professor). We discussed the entrenched tensions between scientific and religious thinkers, the reasons people turn to books, and her thoughts on the state of American democracy.
This is the second consecutive collection of essays you've published since your last novel, Home (2008). Are essays especially engaging you right now, as opposed to fiction?
Almost all of the essays in the book were lectures that I gave in specific settings. The oldest one, the title essay, is a lecture I gave just after Housekeeping was published [in 1980]. I gave "Austerity as Ideology" in Oxford last May. So, they cover a wide span.
I don't know how the idea came up of gathering up unpublished lectures that I had written—maybe it originated with me! But I'm glad if they seem relatively readable as a book. When I lecture, under almost all circumstances, I write a new lecture for the occasion. It helps me think. It helps me make demands of myself that I would not otherwise make. Then, having done that, I collected them.
I imagine you approach fiction and non-fiction differently, and for different reasons. Do these genres serve different roles in your writing life?
They're both very strong impulses for me. Fiction and essay-writing feel quite different to me. I did go through graduate school and I like to do research, to create something that has a certain objective solidity. The same thing influences my fiction to some degree, because, you know, my fiction is often based on history that I've read.
But I think I feel two sort of opposed impulses. To be analytical and assertive, on the one hand, and on the other to let the fiction find its own life. I separate them in order to keep them from infiltrating one another in ways that I would not find satisfying.
People bemoan the state and fate of publishing, but I've heard you say many times it's a good time to be reading, writing, and read. What makes you feel that way?
Well, I do love the availability of information that we have now, which is just unparalleled in human experience.
I've found that everyone that I've had to deal with in publishing has been wonderful, very ready to encourage what they take to be quality or originality. I've written things that get called "unfashionable," but it's never done them any harm. And I hope that people will take from my example that you can be "unfashionable" in whatever mode is most appealing to you. That the publishing industry, so far from being intolerant of something unexpected, is happy to see if you can find a readership.
How would describe the "unfashionable" quality you say has been ascribed to you?
It's often a comment that's made about my prose, which—I mean, it just seems like prose to me—but to other people it seems formal. I use long sentences. I use an extended vocabulary, that sort of thing. And I do make references, especially in my essays, to subjects that are not terribly fashionable in their own right—like Calvinism, for example! That's an interest of mine. I've taken a great deal of pleasure from researching it. I find that people just let me have my obsessions, and I find that if I do reputable work, or if anybody does, the latitude we have is very broad.
In "Freedom of Thought," you write that, although you can't say why fiction is necessary, it is indisputable that people crave it. When have you seen fiction meet a deep need within an individual reader?
Well, often people meet you very briefly, and they say—"your book changed my life." I think writers get that comment pretty often. And it's very moving think that people do actually navigate by books, that books can have that kind of impact.
Once I went to woman's prison in Pocatello, Idaho. I read some, and we talked some, and when I was leaving one of the women said, "Tell your students to write good books. They're all we live for." [Pauses.] You know? It's so easy to forget how important books are, partly because I'm someone like me: I'm practically drowning in books. My house is groaning with books. But then you realize that they're really bread to people who absolutely need then.
What is it that we seek in fiction? Do we seek out sacred books and literary books for similar reasons?
I think that's probably true. I think that one major subject of sacred books is—beauty, actually. And the same is true of literary books. There's something about the aesthetic quality of existence that's a little bit uncanny, you know? And I think that's something that both kinds of literature exist to explore.
You seem to feel that the mystery of human perception—which is sometimes overlooked, being so familiar to us—is the great things worth exploring, either in fiction or nonfiction.