The Art of Fiction —Excerpts from an interview with Richard Powers

“Contemporary humanity has lost the ability to engage in productive solitude.”

Richard Powers

The Art of Fiction CLXXV—Excerpt

Interviewed by Kevin Berger

Issue 164

Winter, 2003


Where do your stories start?


A stray account about the gold rush to crack the genetic code or meeting David Rumelhart, the father of neural networks, at a conference in Chicago and having him describe these bizarre machines to me years before the public ever heard about them. Plowing the Dark started when I heard a lecture by Terry Waite, who told about his five-year captivity in Beirut. After the lecture, he took questions from the audience and someone bluntly asked, “What was the main thing you learned in being locked up for five years?” In the moment after my stomach lurched at the question, I ran through all the possible answers: “Love life while you can,” “Never take people for granted again.” But his answer was shocking. He said, “Contemporary humanity has lost the ability to engage in productive solitude.”


What do you think he meant by “productive”?


He wasn’t using the term in the way late-capitalistic market society would mean productive. He wasn’t talking about General Motors’s definition of productivity. The currency he was speaking of is very much the care and tending of individual salvation.

To me, his comment legitimized the process of reading and writing. The thing that makes reading and writing suspect in the eyes of the market economy is that it’s not corrupted. It’s a threat to the GNP, to the gene engineer. It’s an invisible, sedate, almost inert process. Reading is the last act of secular prayer. Even if you’re reading in an airport, you’re making a womb unto yourself—you’re blocking the end results of information and communication long enough to be in a kind of stationary, meditative aspect. A book is a done deal and nothing you do is going to alter the content, and that’s antithetical to the idea that drives our society right now, which is about changing the future, being an agent, getting and taking charge of your destiny and altering it. The destiny of a written narrative is outside the realm of the time. For so long as you are reading, you are also outside the realm of the time. What Waite said seemed like a justification for this unjustifiable process that I’ve given my life to.

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