Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Politics and Literature: Richard Powers

Richard Powers is always an interesting, thoughtful interview subject. I first read this one, with Jeffrey Williams, several years ago (link brought back to my attention by wood s lot), which provides us with this (fairly lengthy) relevant excerpt:
JW: To put it in a more general way, you think that the novelist's job is to prortray the full complexity of life. On the other hand, is there a political component? Gain doesn't wave any flags or beat any polemical horses, but it would be hard not to see it as a political commentary on corporate life.

RP: The novelist's job is to say what it means to be alive. I don't think there are any wrong ways of doing that; I think there are wrong ways of not doing that, of avoiding it, but I think there's nothing that you could throw into that hopper that would be irrelevant. The more you can treat -- providing you can continue to synthesize it into something that's both intellectually and emotionally engaging -- the better. Right now a lot of fiction restricts itself totally to dramatic revelation, raising a lot of proscriptions about the way that fiction can and can't function. The direct introduction of discursive material has been considered anathema for a long time. I've been trying in different ways to violate that prohibition from my first book on. True, you can get more emotive power over your reader by dramatic revelation than by discursive narrative. But you can get more connection with discursive narrative! The real secret is to triangulate between these two modes, getting to places that neither technique could reach in isolation. Because that's how the human organism works. We employ all sorts of intelligences, from low-level bodily intuitions to high-level, syllogistic rationalism. It's not a question of which way of knowing the world is the right one.

JW: People would say that you're more "cerebral." That's a word I frequently see to describe your fiction.

RP: That's been a hard rap to shake, no matter what paths I've chosen to take. I try to include head and heart, to write using all the modes of knowing the world that we employ as we bump around in it. To open the novel back up to taking science as a legitimate subject, to let the novel treat the political without betraying psychological insight: these paths are full of emotional potential. I'm interested in reclaiming lots of intellectual territory for the novel, but I'd like to see that happen without a loss of emotional territory. The novel is a genre that presents unique opportunities to appeal to all sorts of different ways of knowing. It's one of the most powerful tools we have for saying what it means to be alive.

JW: That's fairly neutral; what of the political valence of the novel? To say what it means to be alive could lend to psychological stories.

RP: You're right. But politics is psychology as it plays out in
groups larger than two. The two exist along a continuous, if discrete, continuum. In Gain, Laura's death is not just the story of her own, private dying. It's also the story of what happens to her ex-husband, of what happens to her children, of what it means to the town to have another resident die of cancer, of what it means to the company to run this rear-guard action while simultaneously cutting the settlement checks for the class action suit. Political events have aesthetic valence, and private events always have their political component. It is possible to write a book that doesn't have an overt political component and still say something about what it means to be alive. But it's also possible to create rich psychological portraits without shying away from the questions of collective politics. Prohibiting a novel from taking on overtly polemical or ideological concerns is like making people swim with handcuffs on. It can only make the picture stunted and smaller.

JW: One could see it in a Chomskian vein as a question of manufacturing consent. There is a pressure in publishing, as our mutual friend Jim Neilson tells us, to prohibit overt, political material in the novel.

RP: More market forces at work. A huge portion of our lives, even as measured from within this fictional construction of the individual -- which Gain goes to great pains to see as a by-product of the rising technological and corporate world -- will always play out in the public sphere, in the social confrontations of polis-making.

JW: Rather than saying politics is generally part of life, what kind of politics would you espouse? Do you think the novel should espouse a particular kind of politics or maintain a certain remove from them?

RP: I do believe in fictional transference. If the novel wants to raise political questions resonantly, it will more profoundly move readers to discovery if its process is one of negotiation and interaction. The novel that deploys one inarguable, fixed, rigid, and reductive polemical position is more likely to alienate than to engage the reader. Yet the best of deeply committed literature can deploy an overt political position and still be so persuasive that it moves people despite a lack of rich, literary dialogism. The Jungle did produce essential legislation. And it's not a subtle book.

JW: Do you see yourself in that line? Earlier you also mentioned Frank Norris, I assume thinking of The Octopus.

RP: My desire in Gain was to provoke a political question and to suggest a political vision without declaring a simplistic resolution to the enormous questions raised by the ascendance of the corporation. I hoped that Laura's gradual awakening in consciousness following her cancer would strike the reader as too little, too late, thereby producing a dramatic discomfort that might encourage the reader to complete the steps that this woman had begun.

JW: What would those steps be?

RP: I want the reader to come to a deeper awareness of the material causes that control the terms of our existence, and to reach a more nuanced awareness of the myths that she has been asked to buy into. I'd like the reader to finish the book asking the questions, "What world have I been sold?" and "What world do I want to live in?" I don't think it's the task of novelists to say, "Here is what you must do to save the planet." But it is the task of the novelist to say, "Here are some things that desperately need doing."


Anonymous said...

Richard Powers makes some thoughtful and obvious points here. Much of what he speaks of is the sort of thing I've attempted in Homefront and other books of fiction. I read his Gold Bug Variations years ago and enjoyed and appreciated it....

Richard said...

I recommend his entire body of work. Gain probably has the most obviously political content, though it is, as he says elsewhere in the interview, a most misunderstood book.

nico said...

His book, Plowing in the Dark has one of the most powerful endings i've ever rread in a book.