Richard Powers

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Richard Powers
Powers reading in April 2018
Powers reading in April 2018
Born (1957-06-18) June 18, 1957 (age 64)
Evanston, Illinois, US
OccupationWriter, Professor of English
Period1985–present (as writer)
GenreLiterary novels

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 2021, Powers has published thirteen novels and has taught at the University of Illinois and Stanford University. He won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Overstory.

Life and work[edit]

Early life[edit]

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 a BA in 1978 and an MA in Literature in 1980. He decided not to pursue a 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 awards[edit]

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]

Bewilderment, published in September 2021,[14] was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize[15] and longlisted for the National Book Award.[16] It is described as "an astrobiologist thinks of a creative way to help his rare and troubled son in Richard Powers’ deeply moving and brilliantly original novel."[17]

Critical reception[edit]

“Richard Powers is America’s greatest living novelist.” —Tom Bissell, The Boston Review[18]

“Powers is better than the best of almost anybody else.”—John Leonard, Harper's Magazine

“Richard Powers is a genius, and he fears nothing.”—Frederick Busch

“One of the few younger American writers who can stake a claim to the legacy of Pynchon, Gaddis, and DeLillo.” —Gerald Howard, The Nation

“What is most remarkable about the body of Powers’s work so far is how much life is in it, and how much intelligence . . . I can think of no American novelist of his generation who makes a stronger [case] that the writing of novels is a heroic enterprise, and perhaps, even a matter of life and death.” —A. O. Scott, New York Review of Books

“Powers is a writer of blistering intellect; he has only to think about a subject and the paint curls off. He is a novelist of ideas and a novelist of witness, and in both respects he has few American peers.” —Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times

“An acclaimed, accredited genius . . . ”—Adam Begley, The New York Observer

“Powers is mesmerizing when he channels his intellectual restlessness into his characters passions . . . When Powers convinces with drama . . . he becomes one of our most masterful writers.”—Charles Oberndorf, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“Powers is a genuine artist, a thinker of rare synthetic gifts, maybe the only writer working—Pynchon and DeLillo excepted—who can render the intricate dazzle of it all and at the same time plumb its philosophical implications…” —Sven Birkerts, Esquire

“Richard Powers, like Bill Gates, is his own CPU, creating his own benchmarks for fiction. For all his cybersmart wizardry, he still writes about megahurts in a language anyone can understand.”—Carlin Romano, The Baltimore Sun[19]

"One of the rare writers who understand that a scientific point of view has the potential to render a fictional world that much richer.”—Amanda Gefter, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Mr. Powers has confirmed his place as the premier writer of his generation . . . He is, in the very best sense of the term, a novelist of ideas . . . Richard Powers is one of those very important and very necessary writers who, with wit and style and a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge, gives us the ever-changing pictures of what it means to be human . . . Mr. Powers is a true wordsmith. Trained both in science and the liberal arts, he is a very intelligent writer.”—Vincent D. Balitas, The Washington Times

“America’s most ambitious novelist.”—Kevin Berger, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

“Powers has complete command of storytelling skills.”—Keir Graff, Booklist

“No writer committed to bridging the worlds of science and fiction has produced so formidable and complex a body of work.”—Rosellen Brown, The New Leader

“Powers has an inventive, virtuosic writing style that reserves him a special category in today’s fiction.”—Judy Doenges, The Seattle Times

“Richard Powers has been astounding us almost every other year since 1985.”—Harper’s Magazine

“Richard Powers is a wonder.”—The New York Observer

“Richard Powers has proven himself a visionary writer.” —Greil Marcus, The San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle

“Powers may be at once the smartest and the most warm-hearted novelist in America today.” —Melvin Jules Bukiet, Chicago Tribune

“Powers may well be one of the smartest novelists now writing.”—Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Powers is a formidable talent.”—The Washington Post Book World

“No writer of our time dreams on a grander scale or more knowingly captures the zeitgeist.” —The Dallas Morning News

“Powers is a brilliantly imaginative writer.”—O, The Oprah Magazine

“When written by Dostoevsky, Dickens, or Richard Powers at his best, one may feel that [the novel] can contain every facet of the world.”—Michael Dirda, The New York Review of Books

“One of our most exciting contemporary novelists.”—Amanda Gefter, Philadelphia Inquirer

“Powers is prodigiously talented. Besides being fearfully erudite, he writes lyrical prose, has a seductive sense of wonder and is an acute observer of social life.”—Jim Holt, The New York Times Book Review

“A master novelist.”—Emily Bobrow, The Economist

“I believe only (in alphabetical order) DeLillo, Morrison, Pynchon, and Roth – all two decades older – stand above him. Of novelists in Powers’s generation with whom he is often compared – Franzen, Vollmann, Wallace – none equals Powers’s combination of consistent production, intellectual range, formal ingenuity, and emotional effect.” —Tom LeClair, The Christian Science Monitor

“Richard Powers, whose novels combine the wonders of science with the marvels of art, astonishes us in different ways with each new book.”—Heller McAlpin, NPR Books

“Powers has a way of rendering the world that makes it seem familiar and alien, friendly and frightening….the effect is heartbreaking and beautiful.” —Booklist

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".[20]

Philosopher Daniel Dennett sent Powers a fan letter eight pages long after reading Galatea 2.2.[7]



  • 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
  • 2021 Bewilderment, W. W. Norton & Company ISBN 978-0-393-88114-1

Short fiction[edit]


Awards and recognition[edit]

  • 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
  • 2006 Finalist, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • 2010 Elected Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • 2014 Man Booker Prize (longlist)[21]
  • 2014 California Book Awards Silver Medal Fiction winner for Orfeo [22]
  • 2018 Man Booker Prize (shortlist)[23]
  • 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • 2019 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award for The Overstory
  • 2020 William Dean Howells Medal for The Overstory[24]
  • 2021 Booker Prize (shortlist)[25]
  • 2021 Longlist, National Book Award [26]


  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. ^ "Bewilderment: A Novel by Richard Powers (Author)". W. W. Norton & Company. Retrieved September 7, 2021.
  15. ^ "'Great Circle,' 'Bewilderment' Among Booker Prize Finalists". The New York Times. 2021-09-14.
  16. ^ "2021 National Book Awards Longlist for Fiction". National Book Foundation. 2021-09-17. Retrieved 2021-09-22.
  17. ^ "Bewilderment | The Booker Prizes". Retrieved 2021-09-22.
  18. ^ Intern (2014-06-27). "Review: Plowing the Dark". Boston Review. Retrieved 2021-10-04.
  19. ^ Romano, Carlin. ""Galatea 2.2," by Richard Powers. 329 pages..." Retrieved 2021-10-05.
  20. ^ Atwood, Margaret (December 21, 2006). "In the Heart of the Heartland". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 2014-11-10.
  21. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-07-26. Retrieved 2014-07-23.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  22. ^ "84th Annual California Book Awards Winners".
  23. ^ "The Man Booker Prize announces 2018 shortlist". Retrieved 2018-09-20.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ Flood, Alison (September 14, 2021). "Nadifa Mohamed is sole British writer to make Booker prize shortlist". The Guardian. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
  26. ^

External links[edit]