The State of Literature

What a New Interview between Obama and Marilynne Robinson Reveals

by Tyler Beckett

On September 14th in Des Moines, Iowa, a fairly common scene played out: a noted writer sat down with the President of the United States for an interview. The fact that President Obama himself interviewed author Marilynne Robinson for The New York Review of Books kept things interesting.

What does it take for this arrangement to occur? Granted, Ms. Robinson is no small-town author selling self-published novels at fall festivals; she teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Group, she’s won a Pulitzer and the National Humanities Medal for her writing, and this most recent interview is probably going on her highlight reel as well. She deserves her acclaim, and that is part of the how she got here.

Of course another part of the answer may lie with this season of Obama’s life. He’s still working hard, but the biggest moments of his presidency are probably behind him. And his public persona has always included a few charming eccentricities, like his Buzzfeed video or SNL appearances. So hey, if the President wants to interview an author, who’s going to tell him no?

But we know presidents don’t tend to do things “just because,” not without careful consideration. And so Obama conducting an interview with a major author deserves some scrutiny (at least as much as a Tumblr post can provide), and choosing to interview Marilynne Robinson specifically carries some important messages.

Robinson fans are all geniuses. Every single one of them. Old fans, new fans, anyone who’s employed her or awarded her, every one of them can say they were right to choose her. They are all validated by the President of the United States, and Ms. Robinson as a writer is affirmed as well. Which leads us to our second point:

Robinson is part of the zeitgeist. You can make a list of themes from Robinson’s novels and they’re all confronting the major themes of our day. Faith and the loss of faith, isolation and family, race and identity. It’s odd for a novelist whose stories are set in mid-century America to be so timely, but Marilynne Robinson’s stories are broadly appealing for the way they engage with important questions.

Obama sticks to his moderate guns, and Robinson is the right kind of moderate.The President has consistently tried to accommodate many demographics, not just his core constituency, and so it makes sense that he should select Robinson for this interview. A big part of that is that she doesn’t fit any particular stereotype. She’s religious, she’s intellectual, she’s a woman, she’s white, she’s an author, she’s a part of an institution. She strikes the right balance of identity that allows her to gain respect in virtually any circle, and she’s not inflammatory enough to alienate or galvanize anyone.

Literature wins big. Obama could have selected any number of respected figures to interview; he’s got a few connections here and there. But instead of a musician or a researcher or a head of state, he elevated an author, largely on the virtue of her work. Novels and essays grab the attention of people and won’t let go, even to the point where the President of the United States can interview an author without it feeling forced or weirdly ironic. Novels likeHousekeeping, Gilead, Home, and Lila can have vast cultural impact, and that happens with or without the recognition of the powers-that-be.

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