It's been too long since I've heard from my agent. Somewhere close to the beginning of the semester, he placed my latest novel with 11 editors at 11 houses. One commitment came early, but that one, a well-known Christian publisher--soon enough spit the hook and explained that while the editors loved the work, the bosses would have no part of it; it wasn't holy enough.
Throughout my writing life, it's been my fate to fall into the cracks between religious forces in American culture. We're an immensely righteous nation--more than 80% of us believe in God and, at least once in a while, attend religious services. Yet, strangely enough, we're more than happy not to let our faith interfere with our politics; most of us deeply believe in the separation of church and state, all of which is fascinating to some Muslims, of course--and just fine with me, I might add.
Apparently, we like our religion, at least most of us, but many of us don't like it "in your face." Some do, of course--and most of those who do love America's burgeoning Christian presses. This latest Great Awakening of ours (now generally on the wane, methinks) has created a mammoth industry in publishing, an enterprise which has grown even while publishing nation-wide, in its secular forms--has not.
And even though some have tried to bridge the gaps between them--lots of Christian houses try to create more mainstream imprints--the gulf between "Christian" publishing and, well, non-Christian publishing remains, well "deep and wide."
Deep enough and wide enough, at least, for me to fall into. I'm simply too big a risk for the faithful; and I end up being too, well, Christian, for the heathens, I guess. Then again, maybe I'm just not good enough. That fact occasionally occurs to me too.
I say all of this because today is Marilynne Robinson's birthday. Gilead is one of those books that shouts at me from my shelf, begging to be read again and again. I know people who've read it several times--I wish I were one of them. The inspiration Gilead gives me is created, in part, by my own foibles; what John Ames shows me clearly is that the job I can't seem to do--write for a wide audience as a believer--can, in fact, be done.
What makes Gilead rich is an authentic American voice. John Ames is an old man with a young son. He's a third-generation Congregationalist preacher, and he is dying. He wants to tell some things to his son, who soon enough will be fatherless. So the novel is epistlary, told in the form of something akin to diary entries, in which Ames tries to explain things about himself to a boy still too young to wonder.
There's a bit of a plot. Just as he is closing in on the end of his life, the son of a friend shows up and terrorizes Ames's own sense of how those final years were going to go. The old man's quiet Christian faith is tested by this son of his good friend, his own godchild. John Ames is sorely afflicted by this young man, but he knows his sin. Still, he is profoundly incapable of doing a thing about it--as we are.
Like another recent Pulitzer Prize winner, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Gilead's great strength is character, not plot. I list John Ames right there with Huck Finn--the character and the book. I've never been a big fan of Salinger, but Holden Caulfield is another distinct and memorable voice. Robinson's remarkable strength in Gilead was simply the creation of a real, live character, a living, breathing human being, this one--strangely enough in this hyper-religious country--a believer, not a paper doll or some 21st century Elmer Gantry (Lord knows we've had more than a few of those in real life lately).
What Marilynne Robinson has taught me is that it can be done--a Christian believer can very well write for a broad American audience in the genre of psychological realism. Tolkein and Lewis do it in fantasy, of course, and the Left Behind series does it in whatever genre those incredible (and bizarre) books can be called. Those genres, sadly enough, are as foreign to me as some sub-Saharan dialect.
But she's my hero--Marilynne Robinson. And today is her birthday. I hope she has a sweet one.