My original intention was to work my way up the Pulitzer list, starting with the first winner from 1918 and slowly reading toward the 21st century, but the winner for 1919, The Magnificent Ambersons, seems to be lost on the shelves at the DeKalb Library. So I decided to read the same book LegalMist is doing now, Gilead.
Gilead is definitely not a book I'd ever select for reading for the heck of it on my own. It is everything I normally don't read. This is not a bad thing -- everyone has different reading tastes. The fact I have no particular interest in either epistlatory fiction or in explicitly Christian fiction is a matter of preference, not a judgement on the quality of any particular author's work.
Epistlatory fiction is fiction written in the form of letters. Or, in the case of Gilead, one long letter. I can see the merits of the technique, especially if it's done well. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead's author, does use the technique relatively effectively. There's a fair amount of repetition as her protagonist reminisces on paper -- he'll describe an incident from his childhood, mention something more recent, and then revisit the childhood incident to add details or look at it from a slightly different persepective. It feels natural, the way people really do write in their journals or blogs -- describing something, mulling it over for a few days, and then going back to the event, issue, or memory to elaborate on it or to consider it from a different angle. And Robinson can write -- the individual paragraphs are often beautifully crafted.
I do have a number of quibbles about the book, though. One is that even though the author, Marilynne Robinson, is from Iowa, the setting didn't feel right. Having lived in that part of the country for a number of years, to me it felt more like she was describing someplace in Nebraska or Kansas than on the Iowa side of the Missouri. It was also downright weird that she kept talking about Kansas like it was right across the river when what's actually right across the river from Iowa is, depending on how far north you are in the state, either Nebraska or South Dakota. I'm assuming most readers wouldn't notice or care, but it bothered me.
I also wasn't too thrilled with the fact that the book overall felt like a first draft that just kind of stops abruptly. I kept thinking, okay, she kept jotting down these beautifully crafted vignettes and once she had a big enough pile of paper, she handed it off to her publisher, saying here it is, enough pages to qualify as a book. The same technique that works in one way as feeling quite natural as epistlatory fiction also comes across as wow, this is a lazy writer's wet dream, just write down random thoughts that are loosely connected with a common theme or two (the relationships between fathers and sons, questioning one's faith, growing old and facing death) and then call it a book. I can't help but think that if Gilead had been the work of a new writer, someone who had never been published and didn't already have a reputation (Robinson's first book, Housekeeping, garnered her a PEN award), it would never have been accepted by any main stream publisher. The religious theme running through it might have gotten it into print with Zondervan, but I doubt if Farrar, Straus and Giroux would have jumped at the chance to publish it.
Out of curiousity I read some of the readers' reviews at Amazon. It's fairly clear my opinion of the book (it's one step away from qualifying as a waste of paper) is a minority one so maybe I missed something. Huge numbers of people have given the book five stars; I gave it one. Would it have helped if I wasn't an atheist? I don't know. I've read a fair number of books with spiritual themes without having a well, that was pretty much a total waste of time reaction, so the logical conclusion is it was this particular book that failed and not Christianity in general.
In short, I have no idea why this particular book merited a Pulitzer. Maybe LegalMist will see something in it that I didn't.