E-mailing Richard Powers

The e-lit blogs are abuzz about “They Come in a Steady Stream Now,” a new online piece by Richard Powers, the much-lauded author who consistently joins themes of technology and art in his novels. The general tenor of the comments on the new piece (with exceptions) seems to be mild disappointment that such an esteemed author didn’t create a masterpiece with his first foray in digital lit. I disagree, but not because “They Come in a Steady Stream Now” is exceptional — it isn’t, though it is very good indeed.

Thing is, Richard Powers is already an e-lit author. I saw Powers speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival a few years ago. It was the first time I’d heard him after years of knowing him through the written word alone. Perhaps that explains what happened to me. Powers delivered a reading of what came to be called “Literary Devices” at the CHF. This gets a bit convoluted so follow me here. In the listening “Literary Devices” seemed like a straightforward recounting of an e-mail exchange that Powers was involved in after delivering a real paper called “Being and Seeming” (“real” because I Googled it right after the talk — still online here). I was completely captivated by the conversation which, in a nutshell, revolves around a system called DIALOGOS, a next-generation ELIZA that convincingly writes fiction and sucks Powers into an ongoing exchange. It was only after the session ended on my way home did I realize that I had been completely duped. The CHF had not invited him to deliver a paper — it was total fiction, just sittin’-around-the-campfire storytellin’. And I had given myself to it utterly. I was the test subject who couldn’t distinguish the human from Turing’s machine.

Now, granted, this wasn’t electronic literature. Hell, it wasn’t printed literature. (Only much later did Salon publish the story, since removed, but available for purchase now.) This was oral literature in its most primitive form. Yet, in its colloquial, fast-paced, almost stream-of-consciousness delivery it really did evoke an e-mail exchange: call it performance e-lit. I was so amazed at how taken I was with this story I e-mailed Powers as soon as I got home. Like the now-fictional correspondent from the talk, I was the audience member who was striking up a real dialogue with the author, effectively continuining the narrative by e-mail — my own personal electronic appendix to the story.

All of this is an elliptical way of making the point that I consider the reading of “Literary Devices” to be Powers’ first jump into electronic literature, though it had none of the trappings of typical e-lit. No links, no point-and-click interactivity. But in its is-this-real-or-am-I-witnessing-artifice way it was the perfect Turing test and one that spawned at least one (though probably more) personalized narratives via other channels. The experience of the story, rather than the words on the page, was akin to some of the best e-lit experiences I’ve had and that’s why I consider “Literary Devices” an exemplar of the form.

“They Come in a Steady Stream Now” is certainly worth reading — Powers as always plumbs the human depths of technology — but it is more run-of-the-mill electronic literature and that, in the end, is why it is, well, run-of-the-mill.

UPDATE: Powers joins the conversation at Grandtextauto. An 8th e-mail, so to speak.

One response to “E-mailing Richard Powers”

  1. Matt K. says :

    Great observations, John. I have a copy of Literary Devices on my hard drive (I snagged it from Salon when it was available there) and I’d love to teach it some time. I too read it as a kind of Turing test, though I didn’t have the benefit of the oral performance.