Richard Powers

Richard Powers (born June 18, 1957) is an American novelist whose works explore the effects of modern science and technology. His novel The Echo Maker won the 2006 National Book Award for Fiction.[1][2] He has also won many other awards over the course of his career, including a MacArthur Fellowship. As of 2018, Powers has published twelve novels and has taught at the University of Illinois and Stanford University. He won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Overstory.

Richard Powers
Powers reading in April 2018
Powers reading in April 2018
Born (1957-06-18) June 18, 1957 (age 63)
Evanston, Illinois, US
OccupationWriter, Professor of English
Period1985–present (as writer)
GenreLiterary novels

Life and workEdit

Early lifeEdit

One of five children, Powers was born in Evanston, Illinois. His family later moved a few miles west to Lincolnwood where his father was a local school principal. When Powers was 11 they moved to Bangkok, Thailand, where his father had accepted a position at International School Bangkok, which Powers attended through his freshman year, ending in 1972. During that time outside the U.S. he developed skill in vocal music and proficiency in cello, guitar, saxophone, and clarinet. He also became an avid reader, enjoying nonfiction, primarily, and classics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The family returned to the U.S. when Powers was 16. Following graduation in 1975 from DeKalb High School in DeKalb, Illinois, he enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) with a major in physics, which he switched to English literature during his first semester. There he earned the BA in 1978 and the MA in Literature in 1980. He decided not to pursue the PhD partly because of his aversion to strict specialization, which had been one reason for his early transfer from physics to English, and partly because he had observed in graduate students and their professors a lack of pleasure in reading and writing (as portrayed in Galatea 2.2).

Professorships and awardsEdit

In 2010 and 2013, Powers was a Stein Visiting Writer at Stanford University, during which time he partly assisted in the lab of biochemist Aaron Straight.[3][4]

Powers was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1989. He received a Lannan Literary Award in 1999.

Powers was appointed the Swanlund Professor of English at UIUC in 1996, where he is currently an emeritus professor.[5]

On August 22, 2013, Stanford University announced that Powers had been named the Phil and Penny Knight Professor of Creative Writing in the Department of English.[6]


Powers learned computer programming at Illinois as a user of PLATO and moved to Boston to work as a programmer. One Saturday in 1980, Powers saw the 1914 photograph "Young Farmers" by August Sander at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and was so inspired that he quit his job two days later to write a novel about the people in the photograph.[7] Powers spent the next two years writing the book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, which was published by William Morrow in 1985. It comprises three alternating threads: a novella featuring the three young men in the photo during World War I, a technology magazine editor who is obsessed with the photo, and the author's critical and historical musings about the mechanics of photography and the life of Henry Ford.

Powers moved to the Netherlands where he wrote Prisoner's Dilemma about The Walt Disney Company and nuclear warfare. He followed with The Gold Bug Variations about genetics, music, and computer science.

In 1993, Powers wrote Operation Wandering Soul about an agonized young pediatrician. It was a finalist for the National Book Award.[8][2]

In 1995, Powers published the Pygmalion story Galatea 2.2 about an artificial intelligence experiment gone awry.[9]

In 1998, Powers wrote Gain about a 150-year-old chemical company and a woman who lives near one of its plants and succumbs to ovarian cancer. It won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction in 1999.

2000's Plowing the Dark tells of a Seattle research team building a groundbreaking virtual reality while an American teacher is held hostage in Beirut.

Powers wrote The Time of Our Singing in 2003. It is about the musician children of an interracial couple who met at Marian Anderson's famed 1939 concert on the Lincoln Memorial steps.

Powers's ninth novel, 2006's The Echo Maker, is about a Nebraska man who suffers head trauma in a truck accident then comes to believe his caregiver sister is an imposter. It won a National Book Award[1][2] and was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist.[10]

Powers's tenth novel, 2009's Generosity: An Enhancement, has writing professor Russell Stone encountering his former student, Thassa, an Algerian woman whose constant happiness is exploited by journalists and scientists.

In 2014, Powers wrote Orfeo about Peter Els, a retired music composition instructor and avant-garde composer who is mistaken for a bio-terrorist after being discovered with a makeshift genetics lab in his house.

The Overstory, published in April 2018, won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize[11] and the $75,000 2019 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award,[12] and was runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.[13]

Critical responseEdit

"Before I understood in literature that transformation into living things, I was doing it in code", Powers said. "Type a few lines of code, you create an organism". His programming background has influenced much of his work, including The Gold Bug Variations; philosopher Daniel Dennett sent Powers a fan letter eight pages long after reading Galatea 2.2.[7]

Reviewer William Deresiewicz has written critically of Powers's oeuvre; in his review of The Echo Maker, he writes of The Gold Bug Variations that "what's missing from the novel is, well, a novel. The characters are idealized, the love stories mawkish and clichéd, the emotions meant to ground the scientific speculations in lived experience announced rather than established. The thinnest of devices are introduced to allow Powers to suspend the plot for dozens of pages at a stretch." But Deresiewicz also noted that his "is hardly the standard view of Powers's work. Over the past two decades, Powers has established himself as one of our most praised as well as one of our most prolific writers of fiction."[14]

In an admiring essay, Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood praised The Echo Maker as "a grand novel—grand in its reach, grand in its themes, grand in its patterning. That it might sometimes stray over the line into the grandiose is perhaps unavoidable: Powers is not a painter of miniatures. Of the two extremes of American mannerist style, the minimalist or Shaker chair (Dickinson, Hemingway, Carver) and the maximalist or Gilded Age (Whitman, James, Jonathan Safran Foer), Powers inclines toward the latter. He gets his effects by repetition, by a Goldberg Variation–like elaboration of motifs, by cranking up the volume and pulling out all the stops".[15]

Powers often provokes mixed reaction. Writing for The New Yorker, James Wood once likened his fiction to "a dying satyr — above the waist is a mind full of serious thought, philosophical reflection, deep exploration of music and science; below, a pair of spindly legs strain to support the great weight of the ambitious brain."[16]


  • 1985 Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, HarperCollins ISBN 0-688-04201-5
  • 1988 Prisoner's Dilemma, McGraw Hill ISBN 0-07-050612-4
  • 1991 The Gold Bug Variations, HarperCollins ISBN 0-688-09891-6
  • 1993 Operation Wandering Soul, HarperCollins ISBN 0-688-11548-9
  • 1995 Galatea 2.2, Farrar Straus & Giroux ISBN 0-374-19948-5
  • 1998 Gain, Farrar Straus & Giroux ISBN 0-312-20409-4
  • 2000 Plowing the Dark, Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN 0-374-23461-2
  • 2003 The Time of Our Singing, Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN 0-374-27782-6
  • 2006 The Echo Maker, Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN 0-374-14635-7
  • 2009 Generosity: An Enhancement, Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN 0-374-16114-3
  • 2014 Orfeo, W. W. Norton & Company ISBN 978-0-393-24082-5
  • 2018 The Overstory, W. W. Norton & Company ISBN 978-0-393-63552-2

Awards and recognitionEdit

  • 1985 Rosenthal Award of American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
  • 1985 PEN/Hemingway Special Citation
  • 1989 MacArthur Fellowship
  • 1991 Time Book of the Year
  • 1993 Finalist, National Book Award
  • 1996 Swanlund Professorship, University of Illinois
  • 1998 Business Week Best Business Books of 1998
  • 1998 Elected Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1999 James Fenimore Cooper Prize, American Society of Historians
  • 1999 Lannan Literary Award
  • 2000 Vursell Award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
  • 2000 Elected Fellow, Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois
  • 2001 Corrington Award for Literary Excellence, Centenary College
  • 2001 Author of the Year, Illinois Association of Teachers of English
  • 2003 Pushcart Prize
  • 2003 Dos Passos Prize For Literature, Longwood University
  • 2003 W. H. Smith Literary Award (Great Britain)
  • 2004 Ambassador Book Award
  • 2006 National Book Award for Fiction
  • New York Times Notable Book, 2003, 2000, 1998, 1995, 1991
  • Best Books of 2003: Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Newsday, London Evening Standard, Time Out (London), San Jose Mercury News
  • Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award, 2003, 1995, 1991, 1985
  • Finalist, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2006
  • 2010 Elected Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • 2014 Man Booker Prize (longlist)[17]
  • 2014 California Book Awards Silver Medal Fiction winner for Orfeo [18]
  • 2018 Man Booker Prize (shortlist)[19]
  • 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • 2019 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award for The Overstory
  • 2020 William Dean Howells Medal for The Overstory[20]


  1. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 2006". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-27.
    (With linked information including essay by Harold Augenbraum from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  2. ^ a b c Andrea Lynn (November 2006). "A Powers-ful Presence". LASNews Magazine. University of Illinois. Retrieved 2006-11-29.
  3. ^ Angela Becerra Vidergar (March 25, 2014). "Award-winning novelist, Stanford Professor Richard Powers finds inspiration in teaching, tech and trees". Stanford News.
  4. ^ Alan Vorda (Winter 2013–2014). "A Fugitive Language: An interview with Richard Powers". Rain Taxi (online).
  5. ^ of, Department. "Richard Powers | Department of English | University of Illinois". Retrieved 2018-04-19.
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b Eakin, Emily (2003-02-18). "The Author as Science Guy; Richard Powers, Chronicling the Technological Age, Sees Novels, Like Computers, as Based on Codes". The New York Times. p. E1. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-03-26.
  8. ^ "National Book Awards – 1993". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-27.
  9. ^ Forrest, Sharita (2010-04-13). "Richard Powers elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters". News Bureau Illinois. Retrieved 5 January 2015.
  10. ^ "Fiction". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-27.
  11. ^ "The Overstory | W. W. Norton & Company". Retrieved 2018-04-18.
  12. ^ "Announcing the 2019 PEN America Literary Awards Finalists". PEN America. 2019-01-15. Retrieved 2019-02-23.
  13. ^
  14. ^ Deresiewicz, William (September 20, 2006). "Science Fiction". The Nation (published October 9, 2006). Retrieved 2014-11-10.
  15. ^ Atwood, Margaret (December 21, 2006). "In the Heart of the Heartland". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 2014-11-10.
  16. ^ Wood, James. "Brain Drain". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2020-02-05.
  17. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-07-26. Retrieved 2014-07-23.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  18. ^ "84th Annual California Book Awards Winners".
  19. ^ "The Man Booker Prize announces 2018 shortlist". Retrieved 2018-09-20.
  20. ^ Fedor, Ashley (March 24, 2020). "Peter Eisenman, David Blight, Richard Powers, and Bill Henderson receive highest honors". American Academy of Arts and Letters. Retrieved 2020-04-07.

External linksEdit