Eric Dean Rasmussen Online

Monday, December 13, 2004

New E-Lit by Richard Powers: "They Come in a Steady Stream"

The latest online installment of Ninthletter contains a work of short fiction by Richard Powers titled "They Come in a Steady Stream Now." I eagerly read the piece as soon as I received word of it via e-mail, because I've been waiting for one of our major contemporary print novelists, such as Powers, to make the digital leap.

My personal impression has been that in the world of electronic literature, poetry has made the migration to the screen (to borrow a formulation from Joe Tabbi) far more smoothly (should I say Flash-ily) than prose narratives have. This is somewhat surprising (or perhaps not) considering that most films in the US are narrative based. While it's understandable that longer prose narratives, novel-length works, might still be best encountered on the page, in a book format, one would think that short fiction, particularly of the image + text sort pioneered by the likes of Donald Barthelme, would be by now a staple of the e-lit universe. But it isn't. At least to my knowledge.

What I'm trying to say is that e-lit has been waiting for some time for an established print-based author of considerable talents to publish an e-fiction that would blow the whole genre wide open. I had great hopes that "They Come in a Steady Stream" now would be that text. Without sounding too disappointed, let me just say that it's not.

I've only read "They Come in a Steady Stream" once and don't want to say too much until I've read it again, but what Powers gives us is a sequence of thoughtful, though by no means profound, meditations on spam. Powers' text, once opened, appears as a window from a standard-model e-mail application for a PC running Windows OS. What you read in this simulated e-mail application are a series of e-mails from Richard Powers. Again, these e-mails consist of short blog-sized musings about the plethora of unsolicited e-mail missives that we receive each day. The messages from Powers are interrupted by spam messages that may or may not be from actual companies.

While it's heartening to think that Powers may be preparing to take the full digital plunge into electronic environments, the author of Plowing the Dark is not breaking any new ground here. The e-mail narrative as a genre already has more experimental antecedents, such as Rob Wittig's Blue Company. To be honest, I was hoping for something more, a fiction in which hitherto unmagined possibilities inherent to the onscreen environment were brought to the foreground. Sorry, but the e-mail inbox frame just doesn't do it for me.

But, hey, not every work can be revolutionary, and I'm sure I'll find more to think about and remark upon in Powers's fiction when I reread it.


  • Hey Eric, thanks for pointing to this and writing about it. I wrote up some of my thoughts, and replied, at Grand Text Auto. Although I actually liked this one quite a bit, there are a number of earlier e-lit works by print authors that I can think of: Robert Pinsky's Mindwheel, Tom Disch's Amnesia, William Dickey's HyperCard poems, and of course the interactive fiction adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which Douglas Adams did work on in collaboration with an IF writer/programmer/designer.

    -Nick M.

    By Anonymous, At 14 December, 2004 01:27  

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