Richard Powers Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What roles do events from history play in the writings that you have read by Richard Powers?

In the Powers novels that you have read, do you find much affirmation in the role that humans play in the universe?

Powers writes about a world that has become increasingly mechanized and stereotyped. Comment briefly on how human beings in his novels cope with this situation.

Powers is a great believer in the role that communication and articulation have in determining human beings’ position in the universal scheme of things. Comment on how he deals consciously with questions of communication and articulation in his novels.

Powers is a cellist and knowledgeable about music. What role do music and other arts play in the novels that you have read by him?

With what major social issues does Powers’s writing seem to be most concerned?

Cite some specific instances in which Powers introduces current events and popular culture into his writing. What artistic aim does he achieve by including such references?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Richard Powers first appeared in print nationally with “Computer-Assisted English Instruction,” a chapter in Education in the 80’s: English (1981). Powers has published book reviews and has frequently contributed opinion pieces to The New York Times, including “A Game We Couldn’t Lose” (February 18, 1996) and “Losing Our Souls, Bit by Bit” (July 15, 1998). His contributions to The New York Times Magazine include “Life by Design: Too Many Breakthroughs” (November 19, 1998), “Eyes Wide Open” (April 18, 1999), “American Dreaming: The Limitless Absurdity of Our Belief in an Infinitely Transformable Future” (May 7, 2000), and “A Head for Music” (January 8, 2006). Shortly after the terrorist attack on New York City of September 11, 2001, he wrote about the disaster in “The Simile,” which also appeared in The New York Times Magazine (September 23, 2001). Powers also contributed “An Artificial Being” to Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, a volume edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel and published in 2005. In “My Music” (in Gramophone, October, 2005) Powers details the significance of music in his life.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In 1985, in recognition of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Richard Powers received the Rosenthal Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a PEN/Hemingway Special Citation, and a nomination from the National Book Critics Circle. In 1989, he became the youngest recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a so-called genius award. In 1998, Powers was named Swanlund Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where, in 2000, he became a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study. Gain brought him an award as Best Business Book of 1990 as well as the James Fenimore Cooper Prize of the American Society of Historians. Many of Powers’s novels have been named notable books by The New York Times (1991, 1995, 1998, 2000, 2003), and his works were finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985, 1991, 1995, and 2003. The Echo Maker received the National Book Award for fiction in 2006 and was also a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Powers’s novels have been translated into more than a dozen languages.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Burn, Stephen J. and Peter Dempsey, eds. Intersections: Essays on Richard Powers. Champaign, Il.: Dalkey Archive Press, 2008.

Dewey, Joseph. Understanding Richard Powers. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. This first full-length consideration of Powers’s writing covers his novels up to 2000. Although brief, Dewey’s coverage is comprehensive.

Hurt, James. “Narrative Powers: Richard Powers as Storyteller.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 3 (1998): 24-41. Detailed analyses of Powers’s first four novels. Focuses on narrative structure.

LeClair, Tom. “The Prodigious Fiction of Richard Powers, William Vollman, and David Foster Wallace.” Critique 38, no. 1 (Fall, 1996): 12-37. Extensive comparative consideration of three writers LeClair labels “post-postmodern.”

Leonard, John. “Mind Painting.” The New York Review of Books 48, no. 1 (January 11, 2001): 42-48. Purported to be a review of Plowing the Dark, this brilliant, extensive essay considers the full body of Powers’s work. A shrewd assessment.