What exactly is Marilynne Robinson saying about criticism?


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Full Stop magazine has interviewed Marilynne Robinson about politics and ideas, creating its own version of an old question-and-answer format from the Partisan Review.

Robinson is, of course, the writer who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for her novel ‘Gilead,’ more than two decades after she first made a splash with her debut novel, ‘Housekeeping.’ Since then, Robinson has been more in the public eye, and making swifter appearances on shelves. For her next novel, ‘Home,’ she was awarded the 2009 Orange Prize.


In other words, Robinson, who has also published nonfiction and taught for years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is familiar with critics and criticism. So, Full Stop decided to ask her about that:

Do you place much value on the criticism your work has received? For the past decade we’ve seen a series of cuts to predominant literary magazines and literary supplements, and in response, criticism has moved online. Do you think this move to the non-professional realm has made literary criticism more or less of an isolated cult? I don’t read criticism of my work, except in the first few days, just to see how it has landed, so to speak. As far as criticism in general is concerned, I am always struck by how little the influence of university training is taken into account, universal as it surely is among people who write criticism. For a long time the academy has been training people in a style of criticism that is marked by nothing so much as jargon, and by generalization that is pointedly inattentive to the character of any particular book. So there is a great breach between the persons of letters who would otherwise lead the public conversation about books and the vast majority of the reading public. No wonder they are so small a voice. It would no doubt enhance our awareness of the serious writing that does indeed go on if there were critics of the kind that used to introduce such writing to a serious readership.

I can’t quite figure out what she’s saying. First, she says that the academy trains critics to write using jargon, and to be inattentive to the characters within books. Is she referring to critical theory, maybe, or semiotics? I’m perplexed, I think, because as a book reviewer I see the criticism of the academy being separate from the criticism in traditional venues (such as newspapers) and new online venues (such as Full Stop magazine).

Robinson’s solution to remote academic criticism is to look to ‘critics of the kind that used to introduce such writing to a serious readership.’ But this is confusing, because looking backward is idealizing a traditional critical culture with established professional critical venues, not the expanded online culture of the ‘non-professional realm.’

I think I’m confused because she isn’t really addressing the question about new media. Is she saying she wants criticism to be less academic, but more like the old days? What do you think she means?


Book review: Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Home’

Man Booker International finalists include three Americans

Marilynne Robinson at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, 2009

-- Carolyn Kellogg