March 25, 2014
Award-winning novelist, Stanford Professor Richard Powers finds inspiration in teaching, tech and trees
In 11 novels, including his latest, Orfeo, Richard Powers repeatedly demonstrates the often-unexpected intersections between the humanities and sciences.
By Angela Becerra Vidergar
Professor Richard Powers, center, in class discussion, sits between Diego Aguilar-Canabal, left, and Alex Simon, right. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)
Genetics, artificial intelligence, race, narrative, biochemistry, social media and privacy are all subjects that students can study at Stanford. They are also the prevailing topics in the novels of Richard Powers, an acclaimed author who joined the Department of English faculty earlier this year.
Powers, who first spent time at Stanford as a Stein Visiting Writer in 2010 and 2013, describes Silicon Valley as an ideal "mid-spot" from which to appreciate both "human ingenuity and natural fecundity."
In fact, he says the experience of assisting in biochemistry and physics research during his previous visits to Stanford figured into the writing of his latest novel, Orfeo. The newly released work explores an unusual combination of music, biotech and government surveillance.
Powers has received much acclaim for his novels, including awards such as the MacArthur Fellowship, the James Fennimore Cooper Prize and the National Book Award. His literary accomplishments also earned him membership in both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Powers described his love of the Bay Area and the rejuvenating power of the classroom in a conversation with the Humanities at Stanford.
At Stanford and in Silicon Valley, the arts and humanities intersect with science and technology in sometimes-unexpected ways. How do you anticipate that this phase of your career within that sphere might shape your future novels?
I'm a novelist who thrives on the connections that aren't immediately apparent. A great university like Stanford is the perfect place for a writer like me, because it's the universe in miniature, here. Everything that interests human beings is being researched in a vigorous, innovative, groundbreaking way. To see that everything is connected to everything else, you just have to walk outside your office and start talking to people. That's extraordinary.
I've written a novel about artificial intelligence, I've written a novel about virtual reality and a novel about the transformation of American society through business, and now here I am with geographical proximity and access to those companies and enterprises and startups that are changing the world. To me, that's just like being set loose in a toy store.
On the other hand, I can look in another direction and see the Santa Cruz Mountains and the redwood forests and the Pacific Ocean and this great chunk of set-aside land that runs the length of the Peninsula. In 15 to 20 minutes, I can be up and walking in these forests that are recovering from a century and a half of logging and see the way that nature persists and transforms and perseveres. That's the other great inspiration my novels have always had – the natural world and humans' relationship to the land and to other living things. Right now I've become obsessed with trees, partly because of being here and walking in these Western forests that are so awe-inspiring.
This year you're teaching a literature course called Shaped for Story and the Stegner fiction workshop. Can you talk about your relationship to teaching?
I have gotten so much energy from the group in my Shaped for Story course, and a twice-weekly refreshment. I mean, for someone who is 56 years old to go back into a classroom and feel the urgency and the earnestness and the excitement of a 21-year-old coming across ideas for the first time, thinking about reading in a different way, asking questions about what we are trying to do when we perform literary criticism – it's almost like getting a chance to go back to the very first party a second time.
When I teach creative writing and literature, I don't see it primarily as an imparting of knowledge that I am in possession of and that they need to acquire. Instead, I see it more as attentiveness to process. I can ask questions, I can compare personal experiences, I can encourage clarifications – but I can also present readings that seem initially disparate or surprising. In Shaped for Story, I'm giving my students works by authors such as Daniel Kahneman, who is a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in economics for his contribution to behavioral economics, and Brian Boyd, who writes about the evolutionary basis of the narrative impulse across all cultures. I'm sure it's the first time that any students in an English program have been asked to draw on so many works that are out of their field and ask this question: What do we share with these other disciplines when we use the words "narrative" and "story" and "character"?
This spring, I will teach the Stegner workshop, with its 10 fiction writers who have won this venerable national fellowship and who are already establishing themselves as the voices of the next generation in fiction. Next year I plan to teach a science fiction writing course with emphasis on the digital, as well as a narrative theory course.
Your works often address how historical moments affect individuals, in this latest novel through issues like government surveillance and terrorism. Can you talk about how the protagonist of Orfeo, a composer, reconciles the desire to achieve newness and change with the influence of history and contemporary American life?
The struggle to reconcile the past and the future pervades Orfeo. When I tell the story of this avant-garde composer caught between legacy and innovation, I'm also writing about a novelist's struggle. How can we make something familiar enough to be entered into, but not so familiar that it becomes deadening or predictable? How can the classic seductions of character and plot come alive again with strange new forms and techniques? How can an artist reinvigorate old themes and lead an audience to rethink what it believes the world to be?
Orfeo plays a certain long-standing American fear of culture and cultural innovation against a somewhat more recent rise of a culture of fear. My protagonist, Peter Els, commits himself to an art of challenge and uncertainty and subversion, and in so doing, runs smack into a society intent on keeping themselves safe from strangeness and individual whim.
The novel asks what art can do and what art should and shouldn't be allowed to make, in the pursuit of re-enchantment. Here's a guy who, because of a lifelong desire to find music in unusual places and to make music in unusual ways, ends up notorious. For the first time in his life he acquires a wide audience, but one that is terrified of what he's trying to do. Questions of safety, fear, art and danger all come together in the story, which is finally a story about attention in the digital age. When there's so much possibility and threat exploding all around us, what kind of art is sufficient to stop us in place and say, "Listen"?
Angela Becerra Vidergar received her PhD in comparative literature from Stanford in 2013 and writes about the Humanities at Stanford.