I love picking out books to take along on vacation. I just got back from a wonderful week away with my family where I ultimately read Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger, (creepy good fun) but this wasn’t my first choice. As I was looking at the books on my shelves, I came across Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping, and wondered why I wasn’t more familiar with it. It’s become a classic, I generally love family stories, and I’ve always been attracted to symbolism about water (I’m convinced this comes from growing up on one of the Great Lakes). It seemed like the kind of novel I would love and like a perfect travel book, since as a bonus, it’s rather slim. Happy to have found something, I sat down for a couple of minutes just to read a few pages. I was intrigued, but suddenly remembered I had read it before, and I didn’t have fond memories of Housekeeping at all.
While I didn’t get very good grades in high school, I surprised myself by doing very well during my first semester of college. I loved my classes and for the first time felt very engaged and excited by learning. But then I signed up for a Women’s Fiction seminar. It sounded innocent enough. We were going to read Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and of course Marilyn Robinson. I read novels all the time, so I figured reading novels for a class would be simple, or at the very least enjoyable. Apparently not. I still remember how uneasy I felt in that class. I read the books faithfully. . although in the class they were suddenly referred to only as “texts” – hello! Pretentious! Amy, the graduate student who taught the class found everything I said trite – I wasn’t digging “deep enough into the text.” They were novels, and quite good ones, but did that mean we had to analyze them to death? I was never sure what she wanted, and the harder I tried the more I floundered. But the real reason I will probably never enjoy Housekeeping comes from what happened after my first exam. I had read every book and come to every class – I was confident I understood what occurred in these books, yet I got my exam book back to find that I had received a “D.” Ouch. I will never forget approaching Amy, (who wore Frye motorcycle boots by the way) and asking her about my grade. I didn’t think it was possible that the grade reflected my understanding of “the texts.” Her response? “Well, you probably do understand them. It’s just that you can’t write.” WTF? Now, I’m fairly certain I write better now than I did then, but is that any way to talk to a student? Until I came across that copy of “Marilyn Robinson’s text” I had completely forgotten about that conversation, but what I do know is this. I’ve always been careful about how I give criticism to writers. I’m always honest but gentle – and if I permanently spoiled a novel for someone, I’d be pretty sorry.