The current issue of The Atlantic has a long article by Nicholas Dames entitled “The New Fiction of Solitude” where, according to Dames, “For an influential group of writers, the purpose of novels is to bear witness to the spectacle of aloneness.”
In this article, Dames refers to a long, long conversation that the novelist Marilynne Robinson had with President Obama last September which was published a few months ago in The New York Review of Books. That “conversation” touched on a number of topics, from troubled relationship between Christianity and democracy to the fragility of public institutions.
Dames (as did others) wondered why Obama focused time and attention on a novelist, such as Robinson, and Dames linked the Obama conversation–some of you might remember–that took place at Hyannis Port in 1960 when JFK, then running for president, met with Norman Mailer, according to Dames, “in order to rouse the discouraged liberal elites who were Mailer’s audience.”
At one point in the Obama/Robinson conversation the president focused on the value of novelists and what they write, saying,
Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels
anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture?
When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting
aside being president, and the most important set of understandings
that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think
I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with
being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full
of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive
for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect
with some [one] else even though they’ve very different from you.
So, get back to writing your book. President Obama (and others) are waiting to read what you have to say!