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James Wood’s Richard Powers Takedown

I’m one of those people who has fallen off the Richard Powers bus. When I first read him I had a very favorable impression, but the more I’ve read him the more that impression has been scraped away–and the more I’ve questioned my original readings of Powers.

There’s no doubt that the man can come up with some remarkably clever premises for his novels, and at times he shows a strong facility for structure, but he just doesn’t have the heart of a writer in him.

In his review of Generosity, Powers’ new book, James Wood says as much:

The fiction of Richard Powers sometimes resembles a dying satyr—above the waist is a mind full of serious thought, philosophical reflection, deep exploration of music and science; below, a pair of spindly legs strain to support the great weight of the ambitious brain. . . . The intellectual stakes are high, but, unfortunately, the novelistic means are limited.

I haven’t read the new Powers novel, and I don’t intend to, as Wood declares it “his most schematic and coarse.” (Incidentally, I did read the story of his anthologized in the latest Pushcart, and I find it hard to believe that that story would have made it in if it didn’t have the Powers name attached.) I’ve worked my way through a good deal of his collected works, and at this point I can’t believe that Powers is going to suddenly learn how to write good fiction.

I don’t always see eye to eye with Wood, but this nails it:

Powers is an ambitious novelist, but he is also ambitious for clarity, and is never afraid to spell things out. And here it is: on the one hand, high-level ratiocination, and, on the other, the “low-level” system of rutting and coupling. His mating plots tend toward the banal, and are written in a prose that is at once showy and anxiously explanatory (“decided to pull an Aschenbach”). So his novels lead double lives, in which the sophistication of his ideas is constantly overwhelming the rather primitive stylistic and narrative machinery; the reader has to learn to switch voltages, like a busy international traveller. What falls in the gap is any subtlety of insight into actual human beings.

I agree. The more Powers I’ve read the more I’ve realized that he goes to pains to make everything extremely clear, to the point that his work is very over-written. This often combines with a tendency to phrase things in a quasi-oblique/quasi-scientific manner that just ends up sounding adolescent. With his ability to link concepts and come up with original ideas, Powers could probably be a strong essayist, but he’s not a novelist.

On the other hand, for a writer who works with a very scientific bent but manages to hew that into literature, I direct you to Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which I am currently enjoying.

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8 comments to James Wood’s Richard Powers Takedown

  • Ryan

    In total agreement. Personally, I always get this feeling that he’s rushed the book out; great ideas notwithstanding, his novels are riddled with those clever-but-imprecise turns of phrase that make the writer chuckle to him/herself during the first draft but cringe and edit during the second. It’s difficult to get through a whole book by someone who appears to be so very in love with their every thought.

  • That’s very well put. I have those moments myself when I write, and then I re-read my work and cringe. But then I see those kinds of moments so often in Powers’ work . . .

  • In all fairness, Powers has written a number of truly great books. GAIN is my personal fave, and GOLD BUG is an American classic, but even his lesser books are better than most of what goes on these days. I can’t imagine where the animosity is coming from.

  • I don’t see any animosity here (frankly-stated assessments are what publishing authors all risk, after all), but I agree with Andrew’s point that even sub-par Richard Powers is yards better than quite a bit of contemporary fiction currently being written. Of course this whole exchange makes me ravenous to read the new Powers, which I’m abashed to say I haven’t yet done …

  • Hey Andrew,
    I didn’t mean any animosity to Powers. I strive to be frank but never mean in my assessments.
    Gold Bug is one of the books that I’ve lost a lot of respect for over the years. When I first read it, it blew me away, but more and more now I feel like it was the concept that I loved more than the actual execution.

  • scott

    Agree about alot of his books but i don’t see how you can not see gold bug as a masterpiece, In fact, in that and in the prisoners dilemna i thought his depictions of relationships and love were actually extremely insightful into the lives of real people, but maybe i’m a simpleton or something.

  • I enjoyed Generosity a lot; I think the book has tons of heart (both writerly and emotionally). (Brief thoughts here: http://www.thegrue.org/tdaoc/2009/08/whats-great-about-generosity-by-richard.html)

  • I am with Esposito and Wood on this one. I think too many critics have overvalued Powers’s strength in conceptualizing the structures of his novels, while not giving appropriate weight (and that weight, it is heavy) to his weaknesses with characters and prose style. When I see the various extravagant claims made for Powers’s books, I’m usually put in mind of another writer–more popular but less respected–whose work I think is superior: Neal Stephenson.

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