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The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Naked Singularity

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski March 9, 2014
    A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from […]
  • The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin March 9, 2014
    The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating te […]
  • The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber March 9, 2014
    The Mehlis Report follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon's capital, where his memories of the city's past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation's civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when pe […]
  • The Fiddler of Driskill Hill by David Middleton March 9, 2014
    Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Midd […]
  • The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell March 9, 2014
    After The Kindly Ones, the nine hundred-page long Goncourt Prize-winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books n […]
  • Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North March 9, 2014
    There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.” Yet surely this is something of a truism. […]
  • A Life Among Invented Characters: A Tribute to Mavis Gallant March 9, 2014
    Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks fro […]
  • The Guy Davenport Reader March 9, 2014
    Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people […]
  • [SIC] by Davis Schneiderman March 9, 2014
    In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing,” and we can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (201 […]
  • The Ben Marcus Interview March 9, 2014
    I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don […]

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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  1. Brewing Richard Powers Debate I haven’t read The Echo Maker yet, so I can’t comment, but two bloggers have some words for William Deresiewicz after he slams The Echo...
  2. Is Richard Powers Evan Dara? Novelists Richard Powers and Evan Dara are often grouped together because they both write lengthy, info-packed narratives that draw heavily from science. Some have even...
  3. Richard Powers Formal patterning has always been a predominant feature of Richard Powers’s fiction. Powers doesn’t so much tell stories (although his fiction has plenty of narrative...
  4. Atwood on Powers In the new NYRB, Margaret Atwood reviews your 2006 Fiction NBA Winner. Powers has gathered critical comments that most writers would kill their grannies...
  5. Friday Column: William Deresiewicz's Attack on Powers By now it’s common knowledge that William Deresiewicz recently authored a sort of take-down of Richard Powers in The Nation. I’ve spent the past...

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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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