Best Novel?

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When Marilynne Robinson wrote Gilead, I heard about that novel at every turn—first from other writers at FIF, then from editors and agents in writers’ conferences. And why wouldn’t I hear about it? After all, the book won the Pulitzer. Still, the readers who left reviews at Amazon, all 311 of them, only gave an average of four stars for the book.

Here’s one portion of a negative review:

So bad it’s offensive. Why is this “fiction”? It’s pages and pages of the main character (and I guess by extrension, the author) spouting his opinion on God and religion

Contrast that to this one:

What an amazing book! Quiet, thoughtful, slow-moving….but so thought provoking. Events unfold delicately, memories surface gently — there’s a wistfulness to this book

But here’s why I bring this up. While Gilead won the most prestigious literary award and readers wrangled over its subject matter and its merit as fiction, people were talking about it.

Lo and behold, I learned today that Christianity Today named Robinson’s HOME: A Novel (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) as the fiction book of 2009.

I did a little checking and discovered that HOME: A Novel came out last September, so it isn’t like it’s been around for a year already, but still, why am I not hearing about this book?

Is it really well written? Then why aren’t writing communities discussing it? What does it do well? What can it teach us?

One thing I found particularly interesting. In Publisher’s Weekly‘s starred review, they said

Robinson’s beautiful new novel, a companion piece to her Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead, is an elegant variation on the parable of the prodigal son’s return.

Could it be that this book offers a stronger statement of the Christian message that some found wanting in Gilead, given that so many Christians lauded the book as an example of Christian fiction outside the parameters of ECPA fiction?

Once again, I feel the prod to read Robinson. But I have to admit, when some readers comment on its slow-moving pace, or give the book one star and say in capital letters that it was boring … well, I ask myself why.

Why do well-written books have to be slow and boring? Meandering, some said, without a plot at all.

Of course, not all those 311 reviewers found those points objectionable. It’s just that, I would. I don’t like slow to the point of boring. I want a plot because I want a story. So Gilead stays on the bottom of my to-be-read pile, and I probably won’t be putting Home into the mix any time soon.

Published in: on February 3, 2009 at 2:57 pm  Comments (12)  
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  1. Home was being extensively discussed in the Australian literary scene. I encountered comments on radio and in print which praised it highly. But in puzzled terms. Australian literati are notoriously anti-religious. I was surprised to find that our library had it, so started reading it. In the first moments it gripped me and I found I had read 50 pages before looking up. Now I’ve just started reading Gilead, so I’m working my was backwards. Home may seem slow but it pulses to the rhythm of real life. If you are looking for some kind of jerky action piece to keep you distracted then it is not the book for you. It’s one of those books that judges you as you read it. Are you a person of depth and perception? Or not. Home will reveal this to you.


  2. I haven’t read either book, so these comments aren’t in reference to Robinson’s work. Sometimes it seems we have to be able to say “no thanks” or “not my style” or “don’t like it” without raising the eyebrows and the judgment of literary types. And those who do react to our “low-brow” assessments are just going to have to handle that not everyone thinks these prize winners deserve such merit.
    It doesn’t mean a person prefers mindless action plots or poor writing. In fact it can mean they need beautiful writing with more plot and more responsive characters.


  3. I disliked Gilead. For several reasons. Slow pace, bad theology (I thought), a main character who lacked faith and goal.

    One of the biggest reasons I disliked it was that she let a character I really liked, drift off on his way to hell. He’d looked to the pastor for help and all the pastor had given him was forty bucks or something like that. I was so angry at that old man for letting his young namesake go without praying for him, without pleading with him, without loving him.

    So if the Home is the story of the young guy coming to Christ, it will be great. Unfortunately, I have the feeling that Robinson’s view of what it means to come to Christ, and mine, are probably not all that close. So I’m afraid if I read it, I’ll be disappointed again. I think I’ll have to let this one go by.

    If that makes a shallow, unperceptive person, so be it. heh heh


  4. Ken, I’m not a fan of books with jerky action, as those who have read my reviews know. The jury’s out on whether or not I’m a person of depth and perception, but I don’t care for the implication that someone who likes action in their fiction is therefore not a deep or perceptive person. I tend to agree with Nicole about style and would add similar comments about genre.

    But here’s my point. Why is it that good stories aren’t accessible to the “masses”? I mean, the gospel is. It’s a simple truth that requires the faith of a child. Do our stories today have to be so “deep” that only a small portion of society cares to read them?

    As a teacher, I discovered that there’s a lot of depth in all kinds of people. It’s a spiritual depth that goes beyond intelligence. But as a writer, I’ve found that there is a story that millions and millions love. So I keep coming back to the idea that we Christians ought to be writing well—deep spiritually, and artistically pleasing—as we tell stories that millions can love.



  5. if the Home is the story of the young guy coming to Christ, it will be great. That’s certainly the impression I got, though I don’t think it was through the father’s letters. Which makesGilead seem more sad to me.

    But I’m hung up on the fact that I can’t get past the first few pages of the book. My mind wanders. I don’t have a reason to care for this person supposedly writing these letters.



  6. BTW, Sally, I just discovered this line about Robinson, I thought you in particular would find interesting!

    Robinson is a Christian whose faith is not easily reduced to generalities. Calvin’s thought has had a strong influence on her, and she depicts him in her essays as a misunderstood humanist, likening his “secularizing tendencies” to the “celebrations of the human one finds in Emerson and Whitman.”

    And here’s another one you might like to know (taken from in interview at The Paris Review:

    INTERVIEWER Was your family religious?

    ROBINSON My family was pious and Presbyterian mainly because my grandfather was pious and Presbyterian, but that was more of an inherited intuition than an actual fact.

    And this:

    INTERVIEWER In your second novel, Gilead, the protagonist is a pastor, John Ames. Do you think of yourself as a religious writer?

    ROBINSON I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.



  7. very interesting quotes. And I’m not surprised at all to read them. I thought she and I weren’t looking at things exactly the same way. I wanted the pastor, John Ames, to believe what God has revealed, but he seemed to be unsure about things. Maybe more pomo, dare I say? He is an old guy who has seen a lot and knows there’s a god but maybe gets more understanding about God from nature than from scripture. What kind of pastor is that?

    I’m not sure–I read the book years ago. So don’t take my thoughts above as anything other than the vague memory I have of why I was dissatisfied.

    I’ve read a bit of Calvin’s writings and have not enjoyed them much. I thought he was often harsh even when I agreed with him on certain issues, and I thought he was just plain wrong about some things. But one thing I never thought when I was reading him was that he was a misunderstood humanist. Wow! I would never have thought to characterize him that way. Of course, I’ve read very little out of his whole body of work. Still…I’ve heard him called many things and humanist was never one of those things.

    I do find it interesting that several good Reformed folk do love Gilead. I can’t see it. But the artsy among us really seemed drawn to it. It was artsy. I’ll give it that.


  8. If you want to read some interesting discussion on the whole issue of Calvin, humanism and The Wreck of Western Culture, here’s a link to some thoughts of John Carroll, an Australian sociologist and possum stirrer.

    He also brings in Socrates, John Ford and lots of other things, looking at whether humanism has finally failed us as Western society. It’s a provocative thesis. Humanism failed in the face of death. We don’t really want to think of ourselves as no more than stinking fish washed up on the beach.


  9. I’m well into GIlead now and am starting to get it. I read Home first, so I’m working backwards. The books are like bookends. They are both about the same thing from the point of view of the two separate pastors. There’s a lot of reflecting on the past. In fact, if there is an action at all, it was set in the past and is being meditated over. I supposed you have to be a certain age before you really understand this stuff.

    Books are either deep & meaningful or ripping yarns, unfortunately. Books which are deep & meaningful ripping yarns are very few. Naturally those are the sort of books you and I are trying to write. I admire both Home and Gilead enormously and am glad to have read them. But I discovered as I read further that I didn’t really want to emulate them. There are always things that we want to learn from reading other writers. In this casethough I think I am just going to admire these books and not get distracted by too much comparison and judgement.


  10. Gilead is an unusual novel, in that the slowness of its pace turns out to be a good thing. As I read, I found that my breath slowed, my muscles relaxed. I felt that something much deeper than time was of the essence. I got contemplative, thoughtful. It was summertime when I read Gilead, on my front porch in the late afternoons, in a rocking chair. I still think that was the perfect time and place to read it.

    I own her second novel, but haven’t read it yet. I think I’m waiting for summer.


  11. I’ve just finished Gilead. I read Home first. It was extensively discussed in secular Australian literati circles, usually with positive comments. It seemed to promote considerations of the value of faith in a way that CBA style novels never would.

    Anyway, there’s an ustated thing about Jack’s wife which grows throughout Home. I thought I was very smart to pick it up. Then when I read Gilead I discovered that there was a whole section devoted to it. It was not a buried secret. I had to do a bit of a re-think of Home.

    It seems to me that Robinson is suggesting that in America salvation is more of a corporate thing and bound up with their internal racial politics. The influence of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement is strikingly strong. Perhaps that explains the intensity of the stuff about Obama. For the rest of the world (about 5 to 1), the election of Obama was the means of Americans to redeem themselves from what they have become. But that was more of a current, recent thing. Robinson’s work suggests there is something planted deep in America’s craw that has still not been coughed up.

    Jack has the thing which cannot be said. Perhaps Robinson is still stuck in the past about this. But it seems to be the reason that Jack as prodigal cannot come home and his father cannot receive him. At the end of Home it is hinted that others will come home and be received.

    Reading both these books has caused me to regret that I no longer have any sort of writing discussion group to share ideas with.


  12. Well, this discussion makes me wish I’d read the book so I could say something intelligent. I just find it hard to imagine that the book actually portrays a Christian worldview, given the things Ms. Robinson said in that interview. Maybe because she goes to church she knows enough faith-talk, but I don’t think she and I would see eye to eye on a lot of Biblical issues, starting with salvation.

    Not that that means I shouldn’t read the book. I’d be happy to read the book, if I can just get into it. (Maybe I’ll try next summer.) What I don’t like is Christians pointing to it as an example of Christian art. Religious art, I should think, but from what Ms. Robinson says, it’s hard to imagine it is Christian.



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