The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Avoiding the “sea of nonsense”

Posted on: October 27, 2008

INTERVIEWER
Most people know you’re a novelist, but you spend a lot of your time writing nonfiction. What led you to start writing essays?

ROBINSON
To change my own mind. I try to create a new vocabulary or terrain for myself, so that I open out – I always think of the Dutch claiming land from the sea – or open up something that would have been closed to me before. That’s the point and the pleasure of it. I continuously scrutinize my own thinking. I write something and think, How do I know that that’s true? If I wrote what I thought I knew from the outset, then I wouldn’t be learning anything new.

In this culture, essays are often written for the sake of writing the essay. Someone finds a quibble of potential interest and quibbles about it. This doesn’t mean the writer isn’t capable of doing something of greater interest, but we generate a lot of prose that’s not vital. The best essays come from the moment in which people really need to work something out.
[…]

INTERVIEWER
How did you decide to write about Sellafield nuclear plant in Mother Country?

ROBINSON
I didn’t really expect to write Mother Country – heaven knows. I was living in England, and it was all over the newspaper and all over television. I was surprised of course because it’s a terrible thing. Sellafield extracts plutonioum-239 and other salable isotopes of transuranic elements, very sloppily, and sends vast quantities of radioactive waste from the process into the sea. It’s a real disaster. They’ve been doing this since 1956. It’s amazing that people could have been up to this particular kind of mischief for fifty-two years, but they have.

When I came home from England, I didn’t even unpack my bags. I just sat down and wrote the article and sent it to my agent. And I said, You don’t have to deal with this if you don’t want to. But she sent it to Harper’s and they published it almost immediately. Then another publisher called and asked if I would write a book about it.
[…]

[I]f I had not written that book, I would not have been able to live with myself. I would have felt that I was doing what we are all doing, which dooms the world.

INTERVIEWER
Which is what?

ROBINSON
Pretend we don’t know what we’re really up to. We know that plastic bags are killing animals in Africa at a terrific rate, but everybody still uses these things as if they just float away. We know that these new lightbulbs cut down on electricity, but where do they come from? China? Hungary? They have to be dealt with as toxic waste because they have mercury in them. So who’s being exposed to these chemicals when they’re manufactured and what are the environmental consequences in China or Hungary? What is the tradeoff in terms of shipping them long distances to save a little bit of electricity?

I’m also partial to the Sellafield book because I think it exposes the ways in which we’re racist. We assume that Europeans are white and therefore more rational than other populations and to find something weird and unaccountable and inhuman we must go to a darker continent.
[…]

INTERVIEWER
Mother Country appeared during the more than twenty-year gap between Housekeeping and Gilead. Why did it take you so long to return to writing fiction?

ROBINSON
It was largely a consequence of the experience of writing Mother Country that I began what amounted to an effort to reeducate myself. After all those years of school, I felt there was little I knew that I could trust, and I did not want my books to be one more tributary to the sea of nonsense that really is what most conventional wisdom amounts to. I am not so naïve as to imagine that I have escaped that fate except in isolated cases and small particulars. But the research and criticism I have done have helped me to be of my own mind in some degree, and that was a feeling I had to achieve before I could enjoy writing fiction.

From “The Art of Fiction” No. 198 interview with Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review No. 186, Fall 2008.

Here is Rachel Cohen’s review of Robinson’s latest, Home, in the most recent Bookforum.

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4 Responses to "Avoiding the “sea of nonsense”"

Her thoughtfulness here doesn’t surprise me at all. Her writing also comes across this way, something very carefully wrought and painstakingly created. I wish she had a larger body of work so I could spend more time with her writing and ideas.

Dear Colleagues,

I’m writing to share my admission that I have once again been caught passing off the ideas and words of other writers as my own. In my January 15th posting, “Nigel Beale’s Comprehensive Literary Criticism Reading List” http://nigelbeale.com/2009/01/nigel-beales-comprehensive-literary-criticism-reading-list/, I have presented a large selection of critical titles, of which I must admit I have read very few. The selection was drawn from sources that I have failed to acknowledge and I’m afraid I cannot pretend that it is really “Nigel Beale’s” list at all. I am embarrassed to have once again committed an act of plagiarism. I have modified the post so it now contains a link to the websites from which I cribbed my list, but I wish to apologize nonetheless. I also wish to apologize to Dan Green for the unintended implication that his reading of literary criticism is less than adequate. I will try to avoid this kind of action in the future. To the well-known troll who has once again been harassing me – I hope this will satisfy you.

Sincerely
Nigel Beale

Hey… still out there?

i love to see more from you i just love your movie rip quality

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