Sunday, October 25, 2015

WSJ's sorry take on Marilynne Robinson's new book

I have been awaiting Marilynne Robinson's new book of essays, The Givenness of Things. It is due to be delivered to my kindle this week. So, I was drawn to a review of it in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. Expecting a positive reading of her work, I was surprised to find a hatchet job. Does the WSJ have an axe to grind against Robinson or is it just the author of the review, Barton Swaim. Swaim was a speechwriter for Mark Sanford the South Carolina governor who famously said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail while secretly visiting his mistress/soulmate in Brazil. Swaim's thin volume was an interesting diversion on a cross country flight. It is a light, entertaining somewhat inside look at what life was like working for the eccentric, conservative governor. I would not consider Swaim's authorial skills in the same league with Robinson. Thus, it was surprising to read that Robinson's essays were "essentially lazy productions", "frequently ambulatory to the point of aimlessness." This is quite remarkable. I have several copies of Robinson's books on my shelves which I go back to from time to time. I had forgotten Swaim's book until I read his review. It is like a middle school quarterback critiquing Tom Brady's throwing mechanics.

Several times Swaim complains Robinson is so ambiguous in her writing style as to be  unclear. Swaim admits to frustration. I can see how he might be frustrated, too. I would be, as well, if a writer had to spell everything out for me. When she writes, "Martin Luther King's educational achievements would no doubt disqualify him from respectful attention in certain quarters as President Obama's do him", he charges her with unclarity. I have no trouble hearing her point and I think most of her readers will get it. Similarly, he denounces the "unashamed racism that has emerged in public life in recent years" and Swaim claims no clue as to what she means. He may not agree with her but I think he knows exactly what she means.

Swaim makes a big deal of Robinson's assertion to be a Calvinist. She doesn't really know what it means he says and she may say that just to draw attention to her writings, he charges. As anyone who has read her essays knows she has been saying and writing about Calvin's influence on her thinking for years.

I don't know why Swaim was the attack dog for the WSJ. Was it because President Obama recently stated Robinson is one of his favorite authors? I suspect that may be it. If not, it would be interesting to know what Swaim really thinks. He is not clear. In the conclusion of his article, he cleverly uses one of her self-judgments before she makes a point, "my thoughts on this subject have not been entirely formed," as a way of referring to her whole work from his point of view. After reading his review I would say, does it matter what Swaim thinks? I have read Swaim and I have read Robinson and he is no Robinson!

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