The Writer and the Critic: Marilynne Robinson and James Wood in Conversation || Radcliffe Institute

The Writer and the Critic: Marilynne Robinson and James Wood in Conversation || Radcliffe Institute

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author Marilynne Robinson (10:52)—acclaimed for the novels Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014)—participates in a conversation with the literary critic James Wood, professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard University and a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine.

Introduction by Lizabeth Cohen, dean, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences

This is the 2017–2018 Julia S. Phelps Annual Lecture in the Arts and Humanities.

For information about the Radcliffe Institute and its many public programs, visit

[MUSIC PLAYING] – Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Liz Cohen. I'm Dean of the Radcliffe
Institute for Advanced Study, and I am so pleased to welcome
you to this year's Julia S. Phelps Lecture in the
Arts and Humanities. Here at Radcliffe, we
have a twofold mission– to support pathbreaking research
and creative endeavors across all disciplines, and to share
that work with the public through a full calendar
of events like today's. Today, we are gathered for
the annual Phelps lecture in honor of Julia S. Phelps. Julia was a Radcliffe
College graduate who worked as an art
historian, a curator, and a devoted teacher. Recent Phelps lectures have
featured cultural historian and Boston Globe classical
music critic, Jeremy Eichler; choreographer Karole Armitage;
and author ZZ Packer. We are grateful to
Julia's family, friends, and colleagues for
their generosity and their support
in honor of Julia. And let me offer a special
welcome to Julia's daughter and son-in-law, Susan Napier
and Steven [? Coit, ?] who are here in the
audience with us today. [APPLAUSE] This year's Phelps lecturer,
Marilynne Robinson, is one of the most
distinctive voices in contemporary
American literature. She is in the midst of
a week here at Radcliffe as a visiting
scholar, interacting with students and faculty
across the university. And this afternoon, Marilynne
will be in conversation with another member
of the Harvard community, the distinguished
literary critic, James Wood. To have Marilynne and
James here together is a fitting culmination to
a semester during which we have enjoyed a feast
of brilliant writers, including Viet Thanh Nguyen,
Gish Jen, Claudia Rankine, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Celeste Ng. And all of those events are
available through our website if you'd like to
watch the videos. At a time when our society is
preoccupied with what is real and what is fake, when the
very notions of truth and fact are under threat, it might
seem strange to celebrate the virtues of fiction. But I don't think it is. Fiction has a remarkable
power to illuminate complexity in action, motivation,
sensibility, and emotion that we
might otherwise struggle to understand or to articulate. In fact, at a time when
supposedly objective observers openly promote what
they know to be false with the explicit
intention of misleading, great fiction can help
to ground us in the real. In today's world,
fiction can indeed be stranger than
so-called truth. Marilynne Robinson's
particular approach to truth-telling through
fiction is especially powerful. Reviewers of Marilynne's
work have all but exhausted the range of
laudatory superlatives. Her debut novel, Housekeeping,
is widely considered a classic and has earned a place on The
Guardian's list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. Marilynne's writing
is also so distinct that critics have
struggled to pinpoint its literary antecedents. The well-known
sportswriter Allen Barra stepped outside of
his typical milieu to write a glowing review in The
Atlantic, in which he described Marilynne as, and I quote,
"an American original." He continued, and I quote
him, "Though Robinson may share certain sensibilities
with other writers, it's difficult to detect
more than a faint association between her work and that
of any previous author." James Wood, Marilynne's
conversation partner who's here with us today, has
identified some of those shared sensibilities, including a
familiar American simplicity with its origins in
puritanism, as well as echoes of Emerson and Melville. But he, too, notes that the
final composition is unique, especially among those
authors whose work resonates with modern readers. As James put it,
referring specifically to Marilynne's Pulitzer
Prize-winning novel Gilead, and I quote, "The result is
one of the most unconventional, conventionally popular
novels of recent times." Although Marilynne is best
known for her fiction, she also writes
meticulously-researched nonfiction on an incredible
range of subjects. As a result, her body of
work resists our inclination to pigeon-hole. How do you sum up an
oeuvre that includes both entrancingly quiet
literary novels like Gilead, as well as a notable polemic
on nuclear waste entitled Mother Country– Britain, the Welfare State
and Nuclear Pollution? Much of Marilynne's work in
both fiction and nonfiction explores complex existential
and epistemological themes. Religion– in particular,
Marilynne's own Protestant Christian faith– figures prominently,
and it is treated with a level of
grace and nuance that is extremely uncommon in
broadly-read contemporary literature. Marilynne's writing
also challenges us to reconsider
notions so embedded in our collective
consciousness that we might not be aware of them at all. In her most recent
collection of essays titled What Are We Doing
Here?, Marilyn writes, and I quote, "In
essential ways, we share false assumptions
and flawed conclusions that are never effectively examined
because they are indeed shared." More sardonically,
Marilyn once observed that "unread books
may govern the world," referring here to our
failure to critically assess the fundamental texts on which
so much of modern culture is based. Some of Marilynne's
fictional characters seem to embody the kind
of rigorous thought that she demands of her readers. For instance, the
Reverend John Ames, who is the compelling
narrator of Gilead, demonstrates a Christian faith
that is deeply held but still questioning in important ways. He is keenly aware of what
he doesn't fully understand. At one point, Reverend
Ames writes to his son, alluding to a passage in the
Gospel of Mark, and I quote, "You can know a thing to death
and be, for all purposes, completely ignorant of it." In short, Marilynne pushes us
to think carefully about what we know and believe
and what we don't. In her essays, she does that
directly by boldly reassessing the likes of John Calvin
and Charles Darwin, or by examining the
contemporary topics like tribalism,
cynicism, and the state of American democracy. But even more remarkable is
the way her novels grapple, at least tangentially, with many
of the same intellectual issues while engaging readers on both
cerebral and emotional levels. And these novels do it
without seeming pedantic or pedagogical. That is the power
of great fiction. Marilynne has spent
the bulk of her career at the University of
Iowa's Writers' Workshop, where she is now
professor emeritus. In addition to the titles
I already mentioned, Marilynne has written
two other novels– Home, which won the
Orange prize; and Lila, winner of the National
Book Critics Circle Award. In nonfiction,
besides Mother Country and What Are We Doing
Here?, Marilynne is the author of The Death
of Adam, Absence of Mind, When I Was a Child I Read Books,
and The Giveness of Things. Among her honors, which are
too many to name here now, Marilynne won the
Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction in 2016. She also received the 2012
National Humanities Medal, awarded by President
Barack Obama for, and I quote, "her grace and
intelligence in writing." Now, it should be said
that this was not just a matter of her turn coming up. Rather, President Obama is
one of her greatest fans. When Marilynne retired from the
Iowa Writers' Workshop in 2016, President Obama recorded
a touching video message to thank her for, and
I quote, "uncovering what is most meaningful
when the rest of us can't find the words." James Wood is an ideal
conversation partner for Marilynne, and I am
delighted to have him here with us today as well. James is one of the most admired
literary critics working today and an author in his own right. He has also been
called, and I quote, "the foremost literary
enthusiast of our time." James is a powerful
advocate for fiction that is both aesthetically
beautiful and real. He alludes to this commitment
in the title of his most recent collection
of essays on fiction which borrows its title from
a George Eliot quotation, "Art is the nearest
thing to life." James is professor of the
practice of literary criticism here in the English
department at Harvard, as well as a staff writer and
book critic at the New Yorker, and a member of the
editorial board of the London Review of Books. James was previously a senior
editor at The New Republic and chief literary
critic at The Guardian. In addition to his collections
of critical essays, James has published a novel
entitled The Book Against God and a book-length study
of literary fiction called How Fiction Works. We are very
fortunate today to be able to listen in as these
two stellar writers converse with each other. Before I invite them
up to the stage, let me just tell you how
the afternoon will work. Following the conversation
that they will have, there will be time for
a Q&A when you, too, can join the discussion. We'll place a microphone
in this center aisle. Please, if you have a question,
line up, introduce yourself before you ask your question. And afterwards, I invite you
all to a reception next door at Fay House. Now please join me in giving
a warm welcome to Marilynne Robinson and James Wood. [APPLAUSE] – Thank you very much for
coming, and thank you to Liz for that wonderful introduction. I think the last thing you want
to do on a Tuesday afternoon is hear two introductions. So that's not going to happen. I think we should go
straight into our discussion. And I want it to
be free-flowing. I think there were certain
things I might come back to– obviously, fiction. I think there might be some
interesting relationship between us, perhaps even
tension at some point because I had a very
religious upbringing and I sort of came out the
other side from Marilynne in some ways. But we overlap in a
mutual respect, I think. And of course, I have
an intense respect for her writing, her
essays, and her fiction. In addition to
the novels, I hope that we will talk a little
bit, too, about her latest book, a book of lectures,
as I was saying to Marilynne earlier, an astonishing
book in itself given how many lectures
she's written in the last two or three years and how
superbly they maintain the style of her essay. So most of us, lectures
are hopeless things full of oral clatter, let's say. And there's none of that
in Marilynne's lectures. So I thought, if you
wouldn't mind, Marilynne– and of course you
should feel free exactly to answer as little or
as much as you want to. But I thought, if
you wouldn't mind, we could just start
at the beginning with your childhood in Idaho. You've talked a lot about the
importance of public education and of libraries. But I actually wanted to
ask you about the sort of religious atmosphere
you were brought up in and the development
of that sensibility as you got into your teens. – My family was not
particularly churchy. Let's put it that way. I never doubted that
they were religious. I felt as if– I mean, I didn't talk
about my religious thinking either until I was, what,
through college, probably. I've never felt inhibited
or urged or coerced or anything like that. I had a very quiet family, and
I was a quiet participant in it. And we were living
in a glorious place. And I read whatever
interested me. And I wouldn't change
any of it, you know? – Yeah. – I was at a religious college
a few days ago, Wheaton College. And they pointed out
that I had said somewhere that it was not
my family's habit to say grace before meals. You have to be careful what
you confide to an interviewer. I felt suddenly rebuked. [LAUGHTER] – Was there a moment where– I mean, given that background– and I don't want to
reduce everything to some sort of 19th
century religious dilemma. But it seems, given
that background, you could, as it were,
have gone either way. Did you have a sense in
your late teens or 20s of adding to whatever
religious inheritance you had, of being unfolded
in a way that was more intense than your parents? – I was interested,
in the first place, in religion as a metaphysics. I was interested in
it as a worldview. I don't know when this began. Religious thought never seemed
to me separate from thought itself. And it was a very
natural path for me to follow farther and farther
into for exactly those reasons. It always felt to me as if
there were a soundness to it and, at the same time,
an openness to it. I think, often, people
who are brought up in religious
atmospheres, they often feel constrained by what
they have been taught. But to me, it always
seemed like it raised absolutely the largest
questions, the most interesting questions. And so I was propelled
autonomously, in effect, in the direction that
was very natural to me. – Yeah. You've said, I think, about
your novel Housekeeping, which, by my
calculation, is taught on at least four
courses here at Harvard, which is fairly astonishing. It used to be a fair bet that
you could say that the only two novels that any of the
students will have read were Lolita and
To the Lighthouse because they were all taught
on overlapping courses. But now, I think we have to
add Housekeeping to that. I teach Housekeeping. I love that book. And I know you've
described it as being, in some way, an accounting
for and a summation of the kind of– that you wanted to work
with the materials that were available to you as a
child growing up in Idaho. That's to say, the kind of
things you would have learnt at school, the
natural resources. And of course, that's a
beautiful element in the book. In some ways, I
think the book is about the construction
of a religion out of the available
bits and pieces, including school textbooks and,
quite literally, twigs and soil and water. Can I ask you, when you
were writing Housekeeping, when you wrote it and how you
went about writing that novel? – Well, I wrote a
dissertation on Shakespeare. And when I was
doing that, people told me that if you
wrote that sort of thing, you would not also
write a novel. We're here to contest that view. But in any case, so as I
was writing my dissertation, I was writing
extended metaphors. And my interest in
extended metaphors came directly from 19th
century American literature. So I think you can see
the allusions that I'm making in Housekeeping. But I wrote these things,
and they were in a stack. And I realized that I actually
had made the core of something or the beginning of something. And then I went
to France to teach in an exchange for a year. And while I was there, the
university went on strike. What could I do? The building was locked. What can I say? But in any case, so I
was living in this house out in the French countryside. And I was considered a novelty. And so the little kids that
lived in the neighborhood would come over and pound on
my windows to see me move. I mean, that was literally it. We would wave. So I went into a back
room in that house, and I closed those big shutters. And that made the
room absolutely dark. And I had a little, wobbly
bedside lamp, and a spiral notebook, and a black pen. And I began writing, continuing
what I had done before. And it was very interesting
and valuable to me because I was in what
amounted to a sort of sensory deprivation
environment. And I was– I've already told this
story this morning. But anyone who heard
it before, forgive me. I would be plunging
around in my memory, trying to remember Idaho. I hadn't lived there
for, like, 17 years. I found that I had, over
time, an extraordinary success remembering Idaho. And this acquainted
me with the fact that my mind was much larger
than my customary access to it would let me know, that my
memory was very, very much fuller and more precise
than anything that I would have imagined. I'm pleased. Sometimes– there are all
these mountain systems there– Bitterroot, and bannock and all
these kinds of [? cabinet ?] and so on, [INAUDIBLE]. And people would write to me and
say, which mountains, asking– they had had an argument
about which mountains I was referring to, which
pleased me very much. But in any case, I found my way
into that novel in that way. And over time, I
wrote it, as it were, long story short, as they say. But when I came back to
America, a friend of mine had written and
published a novel. And he asked if he could see
my novel, and I gave it to him. And he sent it to his
agent, didn't tell me. So out of a blue sky, I
got a letter from an agent saying she would like
to represent my book. She's still my agent. But people ask me how to
enter the literary world. I have no idea. [LAUGHTER] – Fantastic. It feels to me like a different
novel from your later books. And obviously, there
can be reasons for that. One would be that
there was a long gap between the next three. Another is that the next three
belong together in some way. But the prose also
seems different. And I understand when you say
that the first book came out of a thing of writing,
experimenting, in a way, with long metaphors. I mean, you can see that
in the book, of course. It's absolutely part
of the fabric of it. When you came to fiction again– it's rather assuming that
you hadn't in between. But as it were, when you were
next writing fiction, whenever that was, was it the
same kind of prose? Did it feel like the
same kind of prose, or did you feel, OK, that was
a particular pinnacle that I reached and a
different kind of place that I want to be now in
terms of just the style? – Well, when I was working on
Housekeeping, one of the things that bothered me is
that a great deal of contemporary
literature, things that I read about in
the newspaper and so on at that time, seemed to me to
be incredibly conventional– thin characters
and tired language. And so I thought, well, I can
retreat into my own enclave. Nobody has written about
my little part of Idaho. And so I had the
whole thing to myself, whatever kind of language
and association and so on I wanted to explore. But then 24 years passed. And then I was out on the
cape, waiting for my sons to join me for Christmas
in an empty hotel. And John Ames
spoke into my mind. I don't know what that means. I got– the first sentences of
Gilead simply occurred to me. They had the heft of
a novel behind them. And so I wrote on from there. Voice is what
determines my style. I don't know. I couldn't go back to
the character of Ruth or the problems of Ruth, so I
couldn't go back to her prose either. – Right, that makes
a lot of sense. Is there another way, though,
in which that first novel is different from the later ones? Or maybe I'm just
trying to find things that I'm determined to find. But it seems to me that if
we could say of the trilogy– I mean, you're never an
orthodox writer, religiously. But if we can say of the Gilead
trilogy, that it's more– I think one could
fairly say that it's more obviously located in a
set of recognizable Christian traditions, should we say. What's very striking
about Housekeeping is this flood-like
paganism that seems to be about to inundate
everything and sweep away everything. Or put it another way,
what's remarkable to me when I reread it,
when I teach it, is what you call the
resurrection of the ordinary. The spring, just walking
through a forest and spring about to happen or
happening, is a strong rival to any orthodox religious
spiritual resurrection that there might be in the
novel, such a strong rival that it might even outdo
it, if that makes any sense. In other words, I feel
that novel is really– when I said earlier that
it's about the construction of a religion, I meant that
in the sense of with all the possible heresies and
impurities, as it were, that might happen
when you just decide to construct a religion
out of what's at hand. When you look back,
does it feel different in that theological sense? – I think of it
as an exploration of what is called natural
religion, the sort of chapter 1 of Romans, you know? – Yeah. – I mean, in a way, I
recapitulate my childhood because I did, in a sense,
put my religious consciousness together out of experience
rather than out of instruction and ideas like resurrection. And so I remember
how strange, how almost daunting, or something,
those ideas seemed to me when I was a child to the extent– I mean, you hear of the
word, and you sort of have the image in mind. But I'm interested in the
theology of the uninstructed. Ruth is one example,
and Lila's another. I think that a
great deal of what one could describe as
religious understanding is sensitivity to
what is implicit. – Yeah, yeah. Can I just talk to you for
a second about resurrection? I think it's your great
abiding obsession. You have a few, but that's
a really powerful one. It's there in all the books. Sometimes, it's figured as
home and the return to home. Often, as justice–
and you're equally interested in political justice,
the restoration of the healing and restoration that's
necessary on earth as much as it is in heaven. But this is a constant
element in your writing, what you beautifully call
the lore of completion. In Housekeeping, you
say where everything will be made comprehensible. What are all these fragments for
if not to be knit up finally? And then some of you might
remember, in Gilead, there's this fabulous thing that I often
return to that John Ames says about the famous
verses from Revelation about how, when we reach
heaven, God will wipe away all our tears, and
there shall be no more death, neither crying
or sorrow, verses which obsessed another
heaven-obsessed writer, Dostoevsky. John Ames, glossing
those verses, writes, "It takes nothing from
the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly
what will be required." So there is a great
deal of suffering, and a great deal of healing will
be needed to make up for that, compensate for that suffering. As you can probably tell, I'm
fairly obsessed with this too. The problem is I
can't believe it. And what I love
about your work is that it's also
full of people who they believe it more
than I do, and they want to believe it more than I do. But in your writing,
it's also hedged around with a great deal of
necessary doubt and anxiety. And I respond to that very much
as the kind of reader I am. And I really just wanted
to talk to you about that. That's a little vague, isn't it? All right, let me just
ask you about this lovely "It takes nothing from the
loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly
what will be required." – Well, as far as
resurrection is concerned, just to back away from
the question for a moment, I think of it in terms
of there being what I think of as a human over plus. I think of people as being much
too profound, much too complex, much too open to the extremes
of experience to simply live fourscore years and die. I mean, in that sense,
just on humanist grounds, it seems almost inevitable to
think that there is more to us than perishes in this world. This has been very
important to me from the point of view
of characterisation, just to be technical
about it, but you know. So often characters, seem
almost thrown away in fiction. They seem dismissed. And I feel as though that's
always, always inappropriate, that it is simply
authorial neglect. I think that– I mean, on that
basis, I don't come at resurrection doctrinally. I come at resurrection
like, that certainly seems right to me. I think that if there's a
reality that is humane enough to super-induce life from
us, I think it would also be attentive to our tears. And it would reflect
the existence of a God who is attentive to them who
would make the very tender fatherly gesture. – Unfortunately,
as you know well– and you write about this,
and you imply it often in your essays. The promise of a
spiritual restoration can get in the way of actual
material political restoration. That is to say, it can
be one of the curses, I think, of a certain
kind of religious charity, is that instead of the
here and now, there is an emphasis on the
then and the future. Is that fair? Am I characterizing– – I think that can be true. I am a Calvinist
because I read Calvin, and he persuaded
me of many things. But one of the things
he said is that if God wanted us to know
anything about heaven, we'd know something about it. The fact that we don't
know anything about it means we have to pay
attention to what we can know, which is this world, this life. And so I don't– I mean, I have a
religious resistance, that he named for
me, to imagining a life beyond this one. I'm very happy to concede the
possibility or the likelihood. But in terms of the specifics,
I expect to be surprised. – Of course, your
fiction is full of people who are imagining,
in often quite hilarious, practical
physical detail, going right back to the
beginning of Housekeeping, or right through, I
think, to your last novel, and indeed, to that
wonderful essay, I think, where you talk– I can read the very
beginning of it. Where is it now? It's the one about
hope where you talk about someone who was at
church with you who suddenly said, if heaven
exists, she would like to go up and take the
hand of her grandmother, or something like that. It's very nice. I've got to try and find it. But yeah, going right
back to Housekeeping when I think Ruth's
grandmother is said to expect that heaven will
look quite a lot like Idaho. And of course, these are
ordinary human desires. You're brilliant at
writing about them. Do you have them yourself? I mean, do you fall
prey to them yourself? I mean, you said
just now, you feel you shouldn't be imagining
heaven as anything just as more than a surprise. But do you actually
do the same things that your characters
do, which is think, oh, that's where I'll see
my mother, that's where I'll see my father, and
they'll look like this, and the room will
be such and such? – I can't really– my imagination stops at the
point of whom I would encounter and under what circumstances. I mean, the great– it's like the
question that Jesus has asked of somebody who
has seven husbands, who's wife is she. And we are so entangled
with one another that– I mean, I might want
to see my mother, but then her sisters
might have a prior claim. I mean– [LAUGHTER] I take it to be unfathomable. And to the extent
that I talk about it, I'm usually sort of
literalizing assumptions that I would not directly share. I assume it would be wonderful. That's certainly its reputation. But I– [LAUGHTER] Beyond that, I just hesitate–
you know what I mean? I find the image problematical. I do always have
people walking out of the lake and all
that sort of thing. But that's only her
saying, how can we imagine the life that has
fallen into this lake, and how can we imagine
its [? purdurability? ?] – Yeah, yeah. The thing from
your essay, "Hope," is, "In church, a
lady so tiny with age that when she stood up, her hat
was just visible above the pew, said, 'The first thing I'll
do when I get to heaven, I'll run and find my grandma. She loved me so much.' Her small voice crackled
with anticipation." But it's a very humane
vision you have, I think, because you see that– I mean, what I love
about it is when I was trying to
work this stuff out to my satisfaction as a
teenager and in my early 20s, I abstractly, I
suppose, abstractly came to a number of decisions about
the impossibility of heaven, beginning with the
idea that heaven was the great problem
for [? theolocy, ?] not the solution to
it, but containing such questions as
precisely the ones you deal with humanely in your fiction. That's to say, continuity. It can't be just
like it is on earth. If it were, we'd all be
doing exactly, up there, what we do here, which
would mean, of course, that it's like Eden. We would be spoiling it with
error and sin and freedom. So it can't be the same
as it is down here. But so that's continuity. But difference is
also the problem. Because if it's
too different, it doesn't seem to have any of the
pleasures that life here has, and we can't imagine it. And the unimaginability is,
I think, part of the problem. And then adequacy, which goes
back to the beautiful John Ames thing, "It takes nothing
from the loveliness of the verse to say that is
exactly what will be required." Adequacy, how does salvation,
healing, restitution, the law of completion,
how could it ever compensate adequately for
the suffering that many of us have to put up with on earth? – Well, one can
only assume it can. I mean that it is
of a kind that does. I think that a long life, in
retrospect, seems very brief, she said, speaking
as one who knows. I'm sure that in the
temporal scale of the cosmos, all of our lives will
seem extraordinarily brief to the point
of disappearance from assuming any
kind of other life. There is no way to– I mean, if you remove the
idea of an embracing God who nevertheless presides over
a world in which suffering is very, very common
and always has been– god bless our ancestors. But if you remove that,
then what you have is simply suffering, about
which nothing can be made. You can't even say, then,
what a terrible thing it is that a human being
should live so briefly or live so painfully. Because then, we lack the
sanctifying definition that makes our suffering
matter in the universe. And we have to believe it does. – Yeah, I suppose. Well, one could
argue that what you have without the promise
is just the suffering, yes, without the false
promise, shall we say, of restoration, which
would then force you, one, to concentrate on
the restoration here and now, I suppose. But again, what I like
about your fiction is the way in which it's
alive to these doubts and uncertainties, the
tendency to overliteralized. And it's also alive to the
fact that if one idea of heaven is going home, Eden,
going back to the place that you came from, your
characters don't really want to be there. I mean, if you think
of Ruth and Sylvia at the end of Housekeeping,
they're wanderers. Jack Boughton comes home, is the
prodigal son, but leaves home. And the constant– what
I love about [INAUDIBLE] is that she's always
about to take off, right? You're not sure at
the end of the novel whether she's even
going to stay, even though you know from the
earlier novels that she must. I like that a lot. I think that you're
wonderfully alive to that. And I suppose this is
a way of asking you whether you feel that– I suppose it must be the case– that writing fiction helps
you to dramatize, stage, work certain things out in a
way that, say, writing an essay might not. – Well, that's certainly true. That is certainly true. Writing fiction is
another way of thinking that is satisfying to me. Also, the feeling of following
a thought to its conclusion– it's just in another
dialect, in effect. Well, it's quite other. But when you talk about the
improbability of heaven, how improbable is this life? It's 99% anti-matter,
100% matter, emerged from the
Big Bang, right? That's the theory. We exist because there is that
tiny failure of equivalence between these two things. I mean, you can go through– I'm not using an argument
from design or anything. I'm just saying that this
world in this universe is such an improbable thing. And if you were
back at moment one and someone said, well,
here are some protons and here are some neutrons,
put a world together to be populated by creatures
that love poetry, you know? – That's absolutely true. I can't deny that. Nevertheless– [LAUGHTER] Nevertheless, if you look
at the very narrative arc that we are given as Christians,
say, from the Hebrew Bible, it would suggest surely that– and your own fiction
rather plays into this– that home isn't the
place we return to. Home is the place
we always leave, right– that there may
be an Eden somewhere. But if we get to it,
we'll almost as soon have to leave it,
that we're always leaving rather than going back. That, as it were, to adapt
that terrifying Kafka line about there is infinite
hope, but not for us, there is a law of
completion, but not for us. – Well, you'd have to prove it. – [LAUGHS] Well, that remains
to be seen, doesn't it? – Yes, it does. – Neither of us will know. – We're all
interested observers. – Let me ask you
another question. We're on this thing of doubt or
whatever we're talking about. You do talk about doubt, and
you have done in your essays. And of course, I love the
dynamic in your essays, that on the one
hand, you're quite good at bringing the hammer down
when it needs to come down– say, defending Calvin
or Jonathan Edwards or something like that. And it's good work. And it's an
instruction to read it. And you're also very
good at giving space to your liberal Christianity,
which is liberal in this also sense of having doubt. So I suppose a question, which
is an impertinent one, perhaps, but one I would like to
ask you is, when you doubt, what do you doubt? – Well, I'd say
here, again, I think I'm a Calvinist because
my family were Calvinists, but they'd forgotten it already. But I have always
considered doubt to be a dielectric with faith. He says that, that you slip back
because your assumptions are too narrow. And then being
instructed, I doubt you'd make another experiment of
thought or belief or whatever. So I have not ever dealt with
doubt as being a problem. I've always seen it as– I mean, sometimes you– I don't know. I haven't doubted in
quite a long time. [LAUGHTER] I'll tell you the truth. I consider my life
to be completely unanticipateble by me. I wrote a book I thought
would never be published, and I get a letter in
the email from an agent. I mean, that's sort of
the image of my existence. I find it fantastic. I'm supposed to be one of the
hundred most influential people in the world. Even, what, Time
Magazine said that, and they're never wrong, right? – Never. – I mean, this is just
grossly improbable. And it has– – They got Trump
right so many times. – So anyway, I feel as though
I know what I want to do, which I consider to
be a great blessing. So long as my faculties
hang together, I will do what it seems
to me as if I ought to. I'm content with that. I'm much more than content– amazed at the
opportunity, frankly. – Between Housekeeping
and Gilead, you were writing essays. And you may– also,
you will tell me– have been writing fiction. Why were you writing essays, and
so many essays, in that period and not, at least,
publishing fiction? – I wasn't writing fiction. I had a crisis, a crisis
you might call a doubt. After I finished
Housekeeping, which I liked and I was pleased with
the reception of it and so on, but I felt as if I had
solved a problem in a way that it would be
dishonest to repeat. I could not use the
same solution again. I did not want to be
regional in the sense that I could not move
beyond my region. And I realized, frankly,
that my education, as much as I valued
it, was really only an annotated bibliography. I just knew what I had– I had a general sense
of what I should know and no great confidence that I
knew it in any meaningful way. So I went– the luxury, I spent
24 years basically reading, reading things like
The Wealth of Nations, Malthus' theory of population,
Capital, every book that everyone had always
spoken to me about as if they had read it. [LAUGHTER] And it was a new territory. It was a– you know what I mean? And once you start
doing that, then there's no natural stopping place. I just stopped finally because
I had this novel in my mind. But to the extent
I've stopped, I'm still reading all
kinds of strange things by other people's standards. But I could not repeat the
northwestern provincial style. Don't ever quote that. [LAUGHTER] And I could not write anything
else with the confidence that I myself was
actually saying this. And so I did a great
deal of very basic work in order to feel that my
thoughts were, in some degree, my own. And of course, there are limits
to how much that's ever true. But I felt, finally, as if I
could speak in my own right, you know? – Yeah. And one conclusion you came
to, I know from that reading, is the one that Liz quoted
in her introduction. And it's in one of the
essays in the new book, that the world is run,
not very well, according to unread books. One of them is the Bible. Do you want to name another? – Well, Capital is
certainly a good example. And it's so odd. I mean, frankly,
the same person that sent my novel to his agent also
lent me his copy of Capital, which I never returned. But in any case, that's
embarrassing, but it's true. But he writes in the
style of Martin Luther. He does this because he was
reared as a Lutheran, right? Who doesn't? I mean, we are such– what do you call it–
racists or something that we assume that
we know everything about this man because
of his, what, last name? But in any case, when you
read him, having read Luther, you can see what kind of
argument he's making and why. I mean, and of course, this
is complicated by the fact that they're a hundred
of years apart, and there's the influences
of culture and so on. But nevertheless, that's
something that's absolutely not recognized in him. He was dealing in the
language of social morality– I mean, basic equity– that you find in Adam Smith and
that you find in the tradition that he felt that he– he was writing for Germans. So his polemical
methods would certainly be influenced by the most potent
polemic that was ever launched in the German language. I mean, the sort of
de-contextualization that people engage in,
which is dramatically inappropriate to an
interpretation of his work. The reason– I mean, I sort
of started early with Marx because I knew so many
Marxists, and I never knew one who had read him. [LAUGHTER] – So once you were really
reading Marx, what conclusions did you come to in terms of– I mean, what were people
taking from the Marx they weren't reading? How was he getting
flattened down, and what would it be
that you want to restore? What would be most
important to talk about now about our neglect
of actually really Marx? What are we not getting there? – Well, his argument
is basically a recoil from the fact of
the extraordinary suffering of the working class. I mean, when– what's his name– Disraeli said that the lifespan
in Manchester, at that time, was 15. People could expect
to live to be 15. And I mean, the routine,
mechanized brutality of reducing populations
to that level, I mean, that's where you have to
begin in understanding Marx. And then I'm sure
we could find things that are perfectly equivalent
in other parts of the world, and certainly in the less
well-functioning parts of this country. So I mean, there's a
humanitarian core in Marx that was turned into
some kind of, like, industrial-age
machinery so that you had this and that dialectic
going on and so on, completely without
the moral ballast that is absolutely
central to Marx himself. – And this is generally, in your
essays, particularly when, say, you write about the university,
but it's a strong current throughout this book– as I was reading it, I was
thinking how much you sound– and I'm not the first
person to have said this, I know– but how much you
sound like certain 19th century social critics. There's a real prophetic
strain in your writing, perhaps increasingly
emboldened, as you are, by the last four or five years
of political developments. But there's a strong
sound there of certain– Marx would be one. Ruskin might be
another, maybe even Dostoevsky of Notes from
Underground– an attack on what you see as a stifling
pragmatism, utilitarianism, a narrow economic
definition of both education and of human potential. And that's a powerful
note in your essays. I know you talked somewhat to
President Obama about that. But I'd sort of hoped,
in that interview, that you and he would dig
a little further into that. – Yes, well, it ended. He was on a tight schedule,
and we were just getting into the meat of things. And then suddenly, operatives
come and scuttle him out of the room. It's the problem
talking with presidents. [LAUGHTER] – This is the first
moment where I hear you taking justifiable
pride in your achievements. – Actually, I'm going to
limit myself to one president. [LAUGHTER] – Yeah, well, it's
true that there's a sad moment in that
wonderful exchange that was published in the Review
of Books where Obama says– or maybe it's elsewhere
that he says something about how he picked
up Gilead when he was campaigning in Iowa. And he says something like,
there were long journeys between campaign stops. There's a lot of
down time to read. I immediately think, well, not
with the current president. That's just more
time to watch TV. Maybe we should open
the questioning up to the audience at this point. We've got about 20
minutes, I think. Here we go. – Hi, I'm Patsy
[? Bodwin. ?] I'm curious to know whether
your books are– I assume your books
have been translated. And I'm wondering what you
think of the reception you're getting in any
countries that you would want to speak to us about. – My books have been translated. My most recent
language is Icelandic. I don't know. I can't follow those
things particularly well. But I assume, since
they keep getting translated in places
like Iran and so on, that they have a reasonable
history of life in translation. I'm very grateful to think
that people are reading them in other places. – Hi. My name is Sarah, and– oh, this is very loud. So my question is I guess
Calvinists kind of have this reputation as being,
like, grumpy and boring, which is not how I
think many people who've read your books would
characterize them or the people in them. They're compassionate and funny. And so I guess I'm
wondering, like, why is it that people think
Calvinists kind of suck, and why do the people
in your books not? – Well, there are Calvinists
that deserve that reputation. [LAUGHTER] What can I say? I mean, I think part of
my fascination with Calvin is resurrection. I'm trying to excavate him from
this burial under the worst implications that people
have drawn from his writing. Every major theologian,
including Ignatius Loyola, has said, yes, there
is predestination. The only two who
don't agree with this is [? Chrysostom ?]
and John Wesley. So how did it get
pinned on Calvin? Polemic. I think he had the
problem of being the most effective polemicist,
the most effective theoretician of his period. And therefore, he took the
brunt of a lot of controversy. That's a very complex
question I've brought up, but nevertheless, things like
that that are artificially associated with him as
if other people had not come to the same conclusion. And then there are just
inexcusable Calvinists. [LAUGHTER] – Hi, I'm Heather. Happy to be here [INAUDIBLE]
I was [? thinking ?] when you were talking about in
the absence of a caring God, is our suffering meaningful. And just a thought, so
I won't go on too long. But I was thinking, for me as
a humanist, I feel like my job as a human being is to
watch other people suffering with at least watchful
concern and caring, that that's what people
do for each other. And then I think, as a
reader, the characters I love the most
and the writers I love the most, I feel like those
characters are sitting with me, that they can sit and keep
me company in my suffering without a God being here. So I was just wondering what
you thought about humanism as a way of approaching
giving meaning to suffering even if I don't
feel a caring God is up there. – Well, that makes suffering
a different kind of problem, certainly. I think that human freedom
is real in the sense that we, from moment to moment,
have the option of dealing with people with the degree of
respect that they yearn for. A lot of suffering, I
think, is not visible. I think that a huge
source of suffering is the rationing of
respect that we engage in. In other words, I
think that we are given the real
problem of dealing with the sad burden of human
sensitivity in all its forms, and that the
question is actually, are we going to
respond from the soul? And that's one of the
existential questions that we are burdened with or
dignified by as human beings. – Hi. My name is Linda
Schneider, and I was introduced to
your writing in 1982 in the first fiction
course I have ever taken. It was not an assigned book,
Housekeeping, at that time. But Susan [? Mansker ?]
had really read a story that
I wrote and said, you have to read this book. And I have read
it multiple times, [? though ?] the religious
element, at that time, just went right over my head. But what I was deeply
moved by in the book– and I think you
alluded to it when you talked about authorial
respect for characters. And that was there
was clearly something, quote, unquote,
"wrong" with Sylvie– or mental illness. I don't know what
you want to call it. But the respect accorded
her and the girls and the sad history of the
family was very moving. And I don't know if you had
encountered in your life or in your town or
whatever, but what made you just have such a much
larger vision of these people than a lot of
writers might have. – Well, I was talking
earlier about how, reading contemporary
fiction at the time, I couldn't find characters
that seemed real to me that were complex enough. And so my solution was to
do a kind of Cubist portrait where Ruth– in my mind, Ruth is one
profile, and Lucille is another, and [? Sophie ?] is another. It's Cubist. But in any case, I
consider them to be– I mean, I think everyone lives
not only with the choices we have made, but with the
choices we have not made, with the kind of
yearnings that we have felt we had to suppress. Where I lived, I think
one of the yearnings, since there was just
wilderness all around us, was that you could just
take off and just disappear into nature in some way. So I was rewarded, when I
tried to make, by my lights, one character
richer, by the fact that it seemed to make
all the characters richer, in my experience. So that's what was
happening there. – Hi. My name is [INAUDIBLE],, and
I'm a senior at the college studying sociology. So I love your fiction. I'm a huge fan of your
fiction, but I also love your essay collections,
The Death of Adam and When I Was a
Child I Read Books. And I was really struck by
the ideas of Old Testament traditions and liberality and,
as you've been talking about, restoration and resurrection. And it resonated
with me not only because you were very
convincing, but also because of my own Protestant
traditions growing up. But I wanted to ask
whether your ideas on social justice, which have
been really compelling because of this prophetic, religious
fire that you have, whether religious thinking
is a foundational premise for these social justice
ideas, or just the lens through which you
look at issues. So is God or religious
thinking a necessary condition of your ideas, or is it
just one of many lenses that you can have or
that any person can have looking through
it, as a secular lens, for instance, and reaching
the same conclusion? – Yes, it's an
interesting question. I think that there's a tendency
to think of religion as being doctrinal and formulated. I think there are lots
of people who would not think of themselves
as religious, but nevertheless, they
look at another human being and they say, this is sacred. We ought not to allow
this to happen– a crowded prison, or any
of the infinite number of things that we see. I think that if you have an
intuition of the sanctity of a human being so that
you want to give them dignity and the
possibility of living out their lives by their
lives and so on, that is basically a
religious impulse. It's just non-doctrinal,
non-denominational. – But it could– just to leap
in, but it could be there's no reason why it needs to
be grounded necessarily in the notion of the divine. – I don't know. I mean, I think that you
proceed from a different set of assumptions that I do. I think that if you see
the sacred in anything, that is an intuition
of the divine. It doesn't matter if
it's quantum physics or your next-door neighbor. – Thank you. – Hi. I was wondering
if you could speak a little bit about
your experience as a writing
instructor, what you've observed in the classroom, the
different mistakes students have made, promising
aspects of what's emerging from writing programs today. – Oh, a great deal is
emerging now, a great deal. I see a lot of students
making the mistake that I did, which is the idea that you can
look at what is being written in your moment and
feeling as though you have some obligation
to it or as if you will fall into a stream
of the publishable or something like that. And, I mean, if you're
trying to do that, then you're making yourself
second-rate, in effect. It's incredibly difficult
to do, but people have to find their own voices,
as everybody tells you, but they tell you the truth. The workshop, at
the moment, it's going through an
interesting transition because finally, we have
a diversity of students. For such a long
time, people will not apply to come to
Iowa because it's Iowa, which is a lovely state. I mean, it's just a– but anyway, this has ended now. So we're getting a lot of kids
that are first generation, kids from the Caribbean, and so on. And people like that
have the advantage of making a case for the
world they come from. And so they're very attentive
to the kind of beautiful details of life that most of us only
notice when you stop and think, well, this is a beautiful,
sunlit day here, even in the middle
of the Middle West. So there's a kind of
richness that is coming in, and an attentiveness to detail– you're great on detail– that is a tremendous
[? balloon. ?] We're seeing a lot
of interesting stuff. It diversifies the voices. It makes everybody more
conscious of what they're there to do. It's a very good thing. – Hi, my name is Abigail. And I was curious about
the role of reading. So it seemed as
though you articulated that you wanted to read widely
before returning to fiction, or it seemed somehow necessary
to develop a new sense of self as a writer. But it didn't seem like you had
that same feeling about writing nonfiction in essays. And I'm wondering about the role
of that kind of wide reading in both of those
voices, and also whether there's a different
sort of sense of position that comes when you write
nonfiction and fiction and how voice differs there. – Well, my essays,
they're usually lectures. And they're usually very much
as I delivered the lecture. And what they usually
are, I'm usually speaking to a college
or sometimes a church. They're little
screams of surprise. This is what you've
been led to believe. This is not true. And it's based on some
book I've been reading or some literature
I've been reading. And so the essays, up
until very recently– and perhaps recently also– are rooted directly in
my going back and looking at things that,
frankly, were things that were misrepresented to me. – Hi, my name is John. My question has to do with the
sense of religiosity or faith or kind of a belief in a
divine or something mysterious. I'm curious to know–
and this is something that I had experienced when
I was in college, too– whether it comes from a kind
of intellection or thinking, or it comes from
experience, or it comes from experience
that is kind of everyday and really not through
kind of a logical faculty. Where do you see that situated
within our mind and soul and in other parts of our body? – I think I have a more sort
of holistic sense of thinking. I mean, some of the craziest
writing in the world is writing that has taken
itself to be severely logical. And I think that experience, if
you're functioning attentively, experience feeds so directly
into every other aspect of your thinking and in
your dreams and so on. I think that if you isolate
something like intellection, you are robbing it of its
primary resources, which are all the other things
that you have named that also come into the experience. I think that we
are, for one thing, acculturated to exclude
from our thinking what we take to be imaginative,
as if imagination didn't discover a thousand things that
science has adopted, and so on. Also, I think we
live in a time when the notion of what religion
is is strange enough to drive people away
from it because it's settled so strangely
in a great many minds. It tends to be a claim
that you make for yourself rather than an obligation
you feel for yourself, that sort of thing. I think that if you just
sort of relax and think, my mind is my mind, and
it's so interesting, and here I am with it. And I will watch it live,
and it will watch me live– I always start out
telling my students that the human brain is the
most complex object known to exist in the universe,
which is simply true. You can read it in
Scientific American. [LAUGHTER] But if you think about that,
that every skull in this room has, in it, this primary object
of cosmic life, then you think, well, I have it. Now what do I do with it? Or what does it
do with me I think is a more important question. I think that you shouldn't
be passive in relation to it, and you shouldn't try to do the
procrustean thing of making it into something that is
useful to a industry rather than being the
unbelievable cosmic privilege of having that brain, that mind. – May I ask a
follow-up question? For someone who is
perhaps interested in kind of grasping the sense of
unfathomable or mystery or finding interest
in religion, do you have any words
of encouragement? [LAUGHTER] Or if it's not just coming
from sitting in a room and thinking on your own,
where does one find it? How did you find that sort of
encounter or understanding, if you can put it that way? – I haven't used conventional
methods, obviously. I think that– what can I say? People come to it by unique
ways, I think, very often. If there's anything
that you consider to be overwhelmingly
beautiful or amazing, that gives you a taste of it. If I want to have a full-blown
religious experience that's as good as reading the psalms,
it's Scientific American. I love these
beautiful hypotheses about the beginnings of
things and the configuration of the universe and all this. It is so hyperbolic. I mean, the Earth is
not a speck of dust. And here we are,
looking at all this. It's absolutely amazing. I mean, that's my little
testimony to human beings as being totally
unaccountable creatures. But the things, the fact of
the materiality of things looked at closely disappear
under the gaze, all of that is very beautiful. And for me, it's
very theological. – Hi, my name is Bree. And as a reader,
in my experience, a lot of contemporary
literature tends to be characterized by
a sense of hopelessness. And as a lover of
stories, wanting to capture this really
powerful sense of awe and joy without it being seen as, like,
a lack of depth or something that's naive, I think
in your stories, you really capture
the balance of having this deep, real sense of reality
and this deep sense of sadness with this really real
experience of joy. And as a writer, I
guess, how do you strike that balance
between those two and have it be believable? And I guess, the follow-up
question would be too, like, what do you
see the role of hope in literature moving forward? – Well, I think that
it has to be authentic. You know what I mean? I don't think that you can
induce in yourself something you don't yourself feel. You can work towards
something you don't feel. That's always valuable. I think that finding the balance
between anything and anything else– when you're writing,
every question is real. Every moment is
another question. How do I do this? How do I do this? There is no solution that's
external to the specific work that you are doing. I think that one of the
things that really helps is respect for your
characters, that you don't embarrass them or abuse them. Or you know what I mean? I think that maybe readers take
a certain amount of reassurance from the fact that they
are also not being abused. They're not being lied to. – Thank you. – You're welcome. – Hi, there. My name is Catherine. My question is, are
there ways that you would recommend to us
to better cultivate graciousness in our lives? – To cultivate graciousness? – Yeah. – Well, I mean, I so
admire the project. I mean, I think
that that would be the answer to so many problems. But you have to notice
it when you see it. You have to be aware that
you have an occasion where you yourself can enact it. I think one of the
things that we don't do– I talk about Calvin
and the human being on the stage with God
watching and so on. But we have, individually
in our own lives, the continuing possibility
of acting well; thinking not, what do I
need or what do I want, but what's gracious
in this moment. I think that's really the
discipline, to be aware of, in terms of the sort of whole
canvas of human dignity, how could I make a
decent account of myself in this moment? How can I do
something beautiful? That's what I would say. – Thanks very much. [MUSIC PLAYING] – Well, that was really
an inspiring conversation. [APPLAUSE]

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