Richard Powers fits right in at Stanford. One of the first people to have his genome decoded, he has worked as a computer programmer and planned to major in physics while studying at Urbana-Champaign. But most importantly, he’s a prolific novelist and National Book Award winner with his eleventh volume on the way. His work fuses his fascination with science, stemming from what Tobias Wolff called an “extraordinary wide-ranging curiosity,” with the humanity he ultimately finds within his characters and his readers.
On February 13th, Richard Powers read a brand new short story to an intimate crowd at Cemex Auditorium. As the Stein Visiting Writer this quarter, Powers is teaching a creative writing workshop entitled Form and Feeling. He and his students are exploring how to produce the maximal emotional affect on their audience. The story he read, Saints Hill (he was very clear that there’s no apostrophe), is his own final project and answer to this question. “The paint is very, very wet,” he laughed to the crowd in Cemex. He had finished Saints Hill that afternoon, inspired by an unnamed painting by artist Olaf Krans. The story, half realist and half allegorical, details a couple’s journey to a small prairie town, which is described as “the last breath-catch before facing down the bloody future.”
After the reading and subsequent colloquium, where attendees left feeling like they had attended one of his fiction workshops, Powers graciously sat down with the Stanford Arts Review to talk technology, the techie/fuzzie divide, and the future of literature in the digital age.
Stanford Arts Review: I know you came to Stanford as a Stein Visiting Writer several years ago. What brought you to Stanford in the first place, and what brought you back?
Richard Powers: I was here 2010 as the Stein Visiting Professor and did a ten-week Winter term. I was shocked when they asked me again. I mean I’d had such a wonderful time the first time, obviously, and I thought, this is a dream interval that will never be repeated. It was amazing to have the chance to come back. I was so shocked that it had been three years because it was still so vibrant in my mind, as if it was much more recent than that. Been back out since the first of the year. We’re at the seven tenths point of the semester and that magical quality of the first visit that I thought would never be repeated is being repeated.
Well it’s great to have you here. As an English major on a tech oriented campus, the English department can feel very small. I’m curious how the Stanford culture and literary environment compares to Urbana-Champaign. Do you still teach there?
I actually don’t teach there anymore. I retired in June. But it’s very similar. Illinois is a big technical campus. It’s a big engineering school, good physics and chemistry departments, and you do get the feeling of lots and lots of intense, exciting activity going on on the other side of the street from the humanities. It’s such a blessing for a writer. I want to take those stories, which are intrinsically dramatic and human stories, the stories that come out of the world of science and technology, and insert them into a literary framework that we tend to associate much more with a personal, self-driven world. What I’m interested in doing is exploring the ways that these profound changes in the way we treat time and space that have come about through all of these technological transformations have changed the way we think about the human self.
I think there is nothing human that shouldn’t interest us as writers. These perennial questions that fiction has always asked—how is the self made, how is the self tested, why is it so difficult to get along with each other—all of those questions are still present. The questions that we’re asking and the stories that we are telling about ourselves are changing profoundly because of the changes in our tools and in our theories about the world beyond us. So it’s great to be on a campus like Stanford, or like Illinois, where you have access to these stories where the research is actually being done. You can think about the changes in the way we manipulate and think about and understand the world as they are being developed and you can start writing the short stories and novels that are going to explore those changes.
Last time I was here, in 2010, I actually worked in a molecular genetics laboratory and did bench work for the weeks that I was here. All of that work ended up in the novel that I’ll be publishing, that I just finished my final revisions on, and that will be coming out next January. I feel privileged to have the opportunity. It’s a goldmine for a novelist to be in a place where so much work in so many different fields has taken place.
This seems like the definition of interdisciplinary, which is a word that’s thrown around quite a bit here. We like to talk about interdisciplinary but it seems that less of it actually happens. I don’t know if you’ve heard the common conceptions “techie” and “fuzzy”—how do you think we can use literature to overcome those differences?
I think the great task of literature is, and has always been, the realization that who we are and the world that we are making are not two different things. This dichotomy between the techies and the fuzzies goes way back. To historicize this: What’s interesting, to historicize this, is to realize that that tension—that belief that there are those people who are making the world by their inventions and discoveries and those people who are struggling to keep up, or understand, or hold on to eternal truths in the face of technology and in the face of the change that technology that is bringing to them—that tension makes good stories. It’s not entirely separable from the kinds of hopes or fears or anxieties that we tell ourselves about anything. If you go back far enough in the literature, you realize that the techie/fuzzy anxiety, and hope, are driving the oldest stories.
What do you mean, “the hope”?
Go back to the dawn of literature, to the Bible and something like the Tower of Babel. There is a great dream inherent in this technology of tower-building that this is going to give us things. There’s also great fear, and there’s an intended punishment on that dream. So that’s one way of interpreting and resolving this tension between the inherent power that’s derived from the hope of the techie vision.
One way of resolving the tension between techies and fuzzies, and the anxiety that a new technology is going to upend the world, for better or for worse—you can see it in Plato. You can see Socrates arguing about writing as a technology, how it’s going to deprive us of our memory, depersonalize us. We’re going to start communicating at a distance, instead of through the only way to really tell what’s in a person’s heart: to look them in the eye while they are talking. And all this reservation about the printed word as a technology, you can hear in the anxieties, in the stories that people tell about Facebook or Twitter—and I love that. I don’t think that interdisciplinarity means that we all have to hold hands and sing Kumbaya because we’re all the same. We aren’t. We have different hopes. We have different fears. But the society that we are negotiating among ourselves is a common property. The novel that wants to do justice to how we live today has to embrace that and has to bring the hopes of the techies and the hopes of the fuzzies face to face with the fears of the techies and the fears of the fuzzies.
Great literature is born in conflict, is born in anxiety, is born in difference, the difference between you and me and the difference between who I am privately and who I am with various groups of people. The exploration of the self is the exploration of these collisions of values and anxieties and desires. That’s where the good stuff happens. It’s important to see that those kinds of explorations of narrative conflict are taking place every day inside the headquarters of all of these Silicon Valley companies that think they have no place for fuzzies. They are also taking place every day in the offices of humanists who think they have no place for techies when the terms of their lives have been greatly expanded by all these prosthetic tools that the techies have put in their hands. Those are the types of stories that I like to tell.
I came to your reading last week, which was fabulous. Saints Hill was the name of the story. You said you finished it the afternoon that you read it?
Which was a lie because I’ve worked on it since I’ve read it.
How do you know when you’ve finished something?
You never finish something. I love revision. It’s my absolute favorite part of the entire process, and it’s never ending. There’s an official end, when something goes to press, but writers have brought out subsequent editions, revised editions of books that went to press. Tobias Wolff told me after the talk that apparently Picasso would go to people’s houses, the houses of people who had bought paintings of his, who had paintings of his up on the wall, and he’d go up to the painting and start reworking it. Stuff that was already there, that was supposedly fixed forever, and here was the artist saying, no. I’m going to keep working on it.
I wanted to talk about that story in context with these ideas about technology. The sense that I got was that there was very little technology in your story.
Oh not at all. It was all over the place.
I mean, there were no cell phones. Were there cell phones?
Well, what is technology? If Socrates sees writing as a technology…
True. But it felt like there was this nostalgia for a place outside of time. Do you think that we have some of this nostalgia for a simpler, technology-deprived time?
The presence of a European in an undeveloped prairie in the middle of the nineteenth century is a story about the importation and imposition of huge, state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technologies upon the “virgin” landscape. What happens in that town is a series of technological events. The town is described as going from earthworks to exporting and manufacture in just a few years. The whole setting in the present day of this couple travelling through these endless miles and miles of corn in the wintertime—the emptiness of that area is itself masking the reality of the immense technological infrastructure, the agri-biz that is keeping the entire world going. All those technologies are there. They’re just hidden.
The story of people trying to make nature do something and conform to their wills is underwriting this story in return and the sensibility of these characters as they are trying to make their way in a very private crisis: Are we going to destroy our past, the careful, safe homes that we’ve developed and run off with each other? What seems like a very personal decision is, in fact, tied up to all these American narratives that have all depended upon trying to change the conditions of time and space and place. There’s a lot of technology when you lift up the cover of the story and see the way that we are shaped by the places that we build. We build these towns, as Winston Churchill once said (though the quote is attributed to lots of different people), “We build our buildings and ever afterward they build us.” So here’s this little ghost town on the prairies that is built by these people who wanted an empty place in which to create their utopia, and ever afterwards it has built the people coming through it.
There’s something very pre-technology about a physical book. As a student who is constantly working on a laptop and talking to friends who are computer scientists, where all their work is mediated by a screen, I love being able to put away my laptop, put away all those distracting screens and just be able to focus on the paper.
If you knew the raw materials and processes involved in that transparent piece of paper that your ink is printed on, you would not take it for granted. One of my novels, Gain, ends with a vignette about disposable cameras found in the drawer of a woman who dies in a hospital. It begins to describe how that camera was made. By the time you finish with the cardboard wrapper around this disposable, petrochemical plastic, you realize that centuries of discovery and invention, millions of people involved in literally countless input processes and assembly streams, is involved in this thing that we’re supposed to snap twelve pictures on and throw away. Now, in the age of digital photography, it’s not the camera that’s disposable, it’s the images that are disposable. They proliferate without number. We can barely even look at them. We can take them faster than we can look at them. So all these questions about how our consciousness changes because of immense amounts of technical know-how that we dispose of as if it’s nothing—they are all miracles. They are all miracles.
I’ve been using the word technology. Maybe what I really mean is digital. How do you think storytelling has changed in the information age?
That’s a very specific and powerful and troubling question for writers like me, who were born in the pre-digital age. But again, historicize it. Could we have a novel without movable type? The printing press? Paper-making? Large-scale manufacture? No. So the novel, the art form, is itself a result of technological transformation. Is the novel under threat? It’s under threat in a lot of ways. Will the novel continue into the digital age? Absolutely. Will it continue into the digital age without change? No, but it’s been changing all along. As John Barth says, the novel was born dying and has been dying ever since. Dying is a prerequisite for growth or for any other kind of transformation. I can’t answer the question what the novel will be because it won’t be any one thing. But the process is already underway.
Here’s an interesting thing, just to be very specific. Four months ago, I sold my first ever short story that went directly to e-book, with no print book, for which I get paid royalties per sale the way that a print writer has always gotten royalties per sale for books. It has never been possible before to have that kind of producer-consumer relationship for a short story. It’s the first time that customers can order an individual short story, get it delivered to them instantly, pay a dollar, and have forty cents of that come to me. It’s potentially very interesting from the standpoint of writing. But I also think that it will necessarily change what we write about and how we write. The demands of the digital age, the superabundance of informational streams, the existence of mobile devices, of notifications, broadcasting, social media—all these things have already profoundly changed even the simple questions of how long should a novel be, how complex can prose be, how much attention can I demand of my readers. All these questions are already up for grabs because of all that’s changed. But they always have been up for grabs. Just to say it one more time. Socrates was sure that writing was going to destroy his society. And he was right.
Do you have an e-book reader? A Kindle?
I have more devices than I care to admit. It’s embarrassing. I stood in line two weeks ago at the Stanford mall to be one of the first people to get the Microsoft Surface. All these different platforms have different affordances. And that’s why there are so many different kinds of devices. We love them all, and we don’t want to have to choose. It’s a little bit like musical instruments. You might want ten different guitars because one has a fast action and one has a sweet tone. They do different things.
One of my professors right now is fond of explaining postmodern literature in terms of competing with television, and trying to draw the attention of people who are used to watching television to their stories. Do you think this is an accurate way to think about literature, as competing?
Beyond a doubt. Competing in the ecological sense. In the sense that every biome involves intense reciprocal processes between agents in that biome that are trying to get by. You could say competition, but you could also say symbiosis, commensalism, mutualism, all these other things that life science understands. It’s not just that you’ve got the energy that I need. The other forms of life in that biome can make my form of life possible. So I tend to think of cooperation and competition as being more joined, inevitably combined.
So is how you deal with this in your work, with combining as opposed to competing? If you think about literature as competing with the Internet, how do you compete with the Internet? How do you combat that when you are writing?
You could theoretically say that there is a zero sum game of competition for attention. A person that goes on his or her smart phone and does Facebook for two hours is taking those two hours out of the time that they might sit down and read a book. Either I’m going to get their attention as a novelist or somebody else is going to get it in a much faster and more immediate way. I don’t think that way though. I think that every introduction of new abilities for people to exchange their hostages and their humanity with other people has added to the palate that an artist has to talk about what it means to be alive. It has added to the palate of their subject matter, has added to the repertoire and toolbox of their own techniques.
Interestingly, we talk about the techniques of writing. Writing is also a technology in that sense. Art is a set of technologies that take the shape of new genres, new forms, and new stylistic approaches. There is always threat involved in being alive and wanting to say what it means to be alive. There is always an anxiety on the part of the artist, can I get in there and get the eyeballs or get the ears that I’m looking for, but it’s also tremendous opportunity to add to the mix. What we are living in now is sort of a terminal mix culture. Everything is getting sampled and repackaged and mashed up and reframed, and that’s vital.