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Fiction, Faith, and the Imagination: A Tribute to Marilynne Robinson

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Marilynne Robinson speaks with Marie Arana at the National Book Festival, September 24, 2016. Photo by Shawn Miller.
Marilynne Robinson (left) speaks with Marie Arana at the National Book Festival, September 24, 2016. Photo by Shawn Miller.

The following guest post was written by Marie Arana, literary director of the National Book Festival and coordinator of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.

Have you ever wondered what famous authors say about each other when they get together to gossip? Well, you’re about to get that opportunity on Monday, April 3 at the Library of Congress. Not only will you hear three celebrated writers confide their personal thoughts about a certain great novelist and her work, you’ll hear them say these things to her face!

But wait. It won’t be just idle chitchat. This promises to be a conversation that digs deep into a novelist’s imagination and renews our faith in the power of fiction. Up for discussion is the winner of the 2016 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, the distinguished, bestselling writer Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead, Housekeeping, and Lila. In the circle of raconteurs are two Pulitzer Prizewinning authors, Geraldine Brooks (The Secret Chord) and Paul Harding (Tinkers), together with National Book Award finalist, the MIT physicist/novelist Alan Lightman (Einstein’s Dreams). It’s a pretty stellar group, and they’re all passionate about the evening’s theme: Fiction, Faith, and the Imagination in the works of Marilynne Robinson.

The three featured speakers will play different roles in the discussion: Lightman serves as a nexus between the creative spirit and science, a subject that greatly interests Robinson; Harding is a former student of Robinson’s and offers a personal vantage; Brooks is interested in history and the moral universes we live in. The moderator, Steven Knapp, president of George Washington University and literary scholar par excellence, is eminently knowledgeable about the ways faith and science have influenced our imaginations.

This spring celebration of the fiction prizewinner follows in the tradition of Poet Laureate events: It’s meant to broaden awareness of exactly how a writer’s work fits into the greater constellation of American literature. Past winners—Isabel Allende, E. L. Doctorow, John Grisham, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth—have all been celebrated at past National Book Festivals, but with the 2015 winner, Louise Erdrich, a new custom was begun. The inaugural spring panel that complemented Erdrich’s prize focused on one of her greatest passions: making readers aware of the trailblazing work that is being done by Native American writers today. This year, Marilynne Robinson, whose works firmly address questions of faith, hoped her event would show how fiction helps us better understand the spiritual, philosophical, and religious underpinnings of American life.

Marilynne Robinson has been hailed as one of the defining American novelists of our time. She has produced four exquisite, gem-like novels, all of them centered on questions of faith and the essential nature of the human soul—all inhabited by unforgettable characters whose fears and struggles take them on transcendent journeys of the spirit. Her novel Housekeeping is the tale of two girls, orphaned after their mother’s suicide and raised by an eccentric aunt. Gilead is narrated by an aging pastor, who sets down a markedly intimate record of his life to leave behind for a very young son. Home borrows characters from Gilead, but focuses on the pastor’s dearest friend and his volatile relationship with a troubled and rancorous son. Robinson’s most recent novel, Lila, knits her characters together to tell the harrowing story of the feral little girl who grows up to marry the soulful pastor of Gilead.

At the heart of these novels is the question of how faith—or its absence—shapes the human character. It is a question no American novelist has explored in quite the same way.

The evening’s conversation will examine the many ways Robinson’s fiction reflects Americans’  long preoccupation with matters of the human spirit. Because science is so often seen as an argument against faith—and because Robinson has so often written about the “faith vs. science” divide—the discussion will touch on this subject as well. Marilynne Robinson will join the conversation at the end of the evening to fully round out this singular exchange.

It’s bound to be a revelation.


Fiction, Faith, and the Imagination: A Tribute to Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.” Monday, April 3, at 7:00 p.m. Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress Jefferson Building. Tickets are here. The event will also be streamed live on the Library’s YouTube channel.