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Robinson discusses readers, writers, human spirit

April 24th, 2006

Writers should respect their readers and see them as intellectually capable individuals, Marilynne Robinson, recipient of the 2006 Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Religion, told a full house of about 300 people at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary April 19.

A faculty member at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Robinson said students enter that program feeling they do not have to reach for high ideals because society teaches them that the general public is uneducated, illiterate and spends its time watching TV. Consequently, they think Americans are not worthy of a writer’s trust.

“At Iowa, we un-teach stupefying assumptions,” she said, explaining that students are taught to respect the reader and assume that the reader is as smart as or smarter than they are.

Robinson talked about the process of reading as being deep and primal. She noted that “reading a novel is a quintessential solitary experience” akin to dreaming, meditation and prayer. It is a sacred space of isolation in which there is a “shared terrain of trust between writer and reader.”

Drawing on historical examples, including Martin Luther and William Tyndale, she pointed out that writers once held a higher regard for their public than they generally do now. Luther and Tyndale translated the Bible into vernacular German and English, respectively. Although they were writing for largely unlearned people, they did not condescend toward their audience or assume they could not understand their eloquent prose. Their works, she said, are still “brilliant monuments of Western civilization.”

Much of today’s literature, she said, seems to be written on an intellectual level that assumes the reader did not progress beyond childhood.

“If a grocery store were stocked on the same principle, it would carry only Fruit Loops,” Robinson said.

Robinson suggested that the outlook may not be a bleak as it seems because “there are still wonderful young people, though they would never use these words, who want to achieve the distillation of their souls from what they write.” At the same time, there still are readers who want the meaningful experiences of giving a book life in their imaginations, connecting with a writer and feeling a book’s potency.

Robinson spoke to several groups in formal and informal settings while in Louisville to receive the Grawemeyer Award, which is given jointly by the Presbyterian Seminary and the University of Louisville.

She was selected to receive this year’s award for her novel “Gilead,” which also has won a Pulitzer Prize. The novel takes the form of a letter written by John Ames, a third-generation Congregationalist minister, to his young son. Ames, whose heart is failing, had his son late in life. The letter, a reflection on his life and relationships, serves as his legacy.

The selection committee chose Robinson for several reasons, said Susan Garrett, a New Testament professor who coordinates the award at the seminary, including “stunning prose that takes one’s breath away with the depth of insight it gives into relationships” — both those between people and between people and God; attention to social themes as urgent today as when the novel was set in the 1950s; and Robinson’s handling of important theological themes.

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