Hidden Valley Lake, Calif.
I am so grateful to William Deresiewicz for enabling me to see how deluded I have been [“Science Fiction,” Oct. 9]. I’m tempted, even, to sue Richard Powers for the roughly 250 to 300 hours of my life I have spent reading his deeply flawed novels. Strange to say, I have actually experienced–obviously due to my “sentimentalism”–rather profound emotions in novel after novel. I was always puzzled that such an intellectually rich author could stimulate sobs from what I believed to be the depth of my soul. Clearly Powers is a charlatan, if we are to accept Dr. Deresiewicz’s insightful critique. Coveting a MacArthur “genius” award myself, I rush to agree that these folks, too, must be deluded.
For instance, Dr. D says of The Echo Maker, “It won’t tell you much about what its laboriously accumulated information and elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like.” Simple me! Sentimental me! One of my inappropriate breakdowns occurred while reading of the meeting of Delia David and David Strom at the Marian Anderson concert in The Time of Our Singing. I sob even as I write, remembering what I imagined to be the glory of Powers’s writing.
The DAR had canceled the black diva’s concert at their hall, so Eleanor Roosevelt opened the Mall and hundreds of thousands came. Delia and David, black and Jew, man and woman, singer and listener, joined their souls. She feared the racial chasm, wanted to walk away. A black child seeking his lost brother seals them into a pledge and a marriage to a world without racism. I guess I must be a real sucker!
Or perhaps Dr. D is the sucker, the attacker, the Yale prof who gets his kicks from dissing the authors he can’t approach? He seems to have a bad habit, one a skillful neuroscientist or author of immensely creative fiction might diagnose. A quick Internet scan finds references to his “hatchet job on Terry Eagleton” in The Nation; a New York Times Book Review of his characterized as “among the most savage dismissals not only of one book but of an author’s entire oeuvre (with a few stabs at the author himself thrown in for good measure)…. Usually it is only spiteful ex-lovers who get this nasty”; and Dr. D’s opinion in the Times that Susan Sontag has “never before…made such large claims for her moral pre-eminence, her exemplary fulfillment of the intellectual’s mission as society’s conscience. In effect, she’s the first person in a long while to nominate herself so publicly for sainthood.”
“Perpetually trying to prove something,” “ethically coercive and intellectually pedantic,” “pious and self-righteous,” Richard Powers’s fiction, proclaims William Deresiewicz–with pious self-righteousness–serves “neither the cause of art nor of justice.” What sins has Powers committed? His characters are flat, his novels lack organic unity and his fiction is didactic.
If Deresiewicz’s understanding of The Time of Our Singing is any indication, however, Powers needs to be more didactic. Deresiewicz seriously misreads this novel. He says its conclusion about race is that since they won’t be accepted by whites, “black people should stick to their own culture and their own kind.” In truth, the novel views race from an evolutionary perspective as “only real if you freeze time, if you invent a zero point for your tribe…. Race is a dependent variable. A path, a moving process.”
That Deresiewicz should misread this novel is no surprise, given his distaste for Powers’s use of science, his “laboriously accumulated information” and “textbookery.” Deresiewicz says Powers is not an experimental novelist but then dismisses the most experimental element of his fiction, the integration of rigorous scientific knowledge into the literary novel. His real objection seems to be that he has been forced to page through long scientific discourses. Thus he suggests Powers has written too many novels, calculates their average length and reminds us that one novel is more than 600 pages! Complaints about Powers’s ambition and productivity and engagement with science sound odd coming from a Yale professor who is working on an intellectually weighty and politically urgent tome on the “cultural history of modern friendship.”
In assessing Powers’s fiction, Nation readers should ask themselves which they think more worthwhile: “locating meaning in experience” and “letting the story speak” or seeing “the human species as but another evanescent episode in life’s vast flow” and passionately conveying the “magnificence of nature, the obligation to live humbly and responsibly.”
Richard Powers is a great writer, not because he is smart (he is), not because his books are filled with ideas from a wide range of fields (they are) but because he writes great books– great, moving books that are indeed filled with “what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like.” That’s why so many readers read them, not because society is bemused by “science” or because critics tell them to. In each book, Powers connects what’s going on–or has gone on–in the world with what is happening today to individual people, often by intertwining two seemingly separate stories that prove to be interrelated. This includes the great Gold Bug Variations, which Deresiewicz undervalues. Deresiewicz might as well have titled his review “Hey, Powers: Showing Off Your Smarts Doesn’t Make You a Great Writer.” His take on the few other novels by Powers he mentions does not make me credit what he has to say about Powers’s latest work.
New Haven, Conn.
I’m not surprised at the strength and volume of protest elicited by my criticism of Powers’s work. Powers is both prodigiously gifted and highly acclaimed–two things I was at pains to point out in my review–and he clearly has many fans, many of whom are undoubtedly thoughtful and sensitive readers. Reasonable people will disagree over a novelist’s merits, and the vitality of those disagreements is a measure of a culture’s health. Less healthy is when disagreement becomes the occasion, as it does in these letters, for misrepresentation and personal attack.
In citing the number and average length of Powers’s novels, I was quite clearly seeking to give him his due as a remarkably prolific writer, not, as Jim Neilson claims, complaining about his ambition and productivity. I was also very clear about how impressive I find those “long scientific discourses”–but only as scientific discourses. (I grew up in a scientific household and was a science major in college; I find science neither alien nor dull.) Neilson praises Powers’s “integration of rigorous scientific knowledge into the literary novel,” but the whole problem is that Powers doesn’t integrate it. His latest novel may preach a view of “the human species as but another evanescent episode in life’s vast flow” and remind us of the “magnificence of nature, the obligation to live humbly and responsibly” (phrases that come from my review, of course), but however attractive those ideas (and I find both very attractive), they have almost no connection to the novel’s story. This is what I mean when I say that Powers fails to locate meaning in experience or tell us what it feels like to be alive, with the result that his expression of these ideas, however rhetorically forceful, has no emotional force. As for The Time of Our Singing, its racial pieties–a fair sample of which Neilson quotes–aren’t simply unrelated to its story but actually at odds with it. Powers tells us that black and white are merely constructs, but he does so within the context of a narrative that constantly insists that its mixed-race protagonist has been living inauthentically by playing white classical music and trying to integrate himself into white society. The novel’s emotional climax, as opposed to its rhetorical one, involves that protagonist’s return to his black roots through an embrace of cultural separatism.
Penny Mattern’s assertion that Powers is a great writer because he writes great books is argument by tautology, and returns us to the fact that about novels and novelists reasonable minds will disagree. The job of the critic, it has been said, is not to have correct opinions but to have interesting ones. But Mattern doesn’t see it that way. If I differ with her, my understanding must be deficient and my voice suppressed. It’s a sentiment that’s implicit in all these letters, but expressed most peevishly by Ernest Lowe. Lowe’s complaint seems to boil down to the fact that someone, somewhere disagrees with him. It’s not enough that virtually every other book critic in the country shares his opinion. Let one person affront his lordly sensibilities by failing to weep when he weeps, glow when he glows, and he must dash off a 500-word denunciation impugning that person’s intelligence, judgment and character. And so the usual accusations are trotted out: The critic is jealous of the writer’s talent; the critic is resentful of the writer’s success; the critic is impelled by deep-seated personal problems; the critic is a creepy little academic who gets his kicks attacking people. Everything but the possibility that the critic is also a thoughtful and sensitive reader, one who reaches his opinions as honestly as anyone else and who cares enough about literature to express those opinions even when they expose him to abuse. Lowe fails to cite any of the many laudatory reviews I’ve written over the years, even though he must have come across them in his opposition research. So who’s the attacker here? If he doesn’t want to read anything negative about the books he likes, he should read press releases, not book reviews. And if he doesn’t want to read anything that challenges his opinions, he should stop reading altogether.