December 14, 2004

The 7th Email (from Richard Powers)

by Nick Montfort · , 3:14 am

Powers' story“They Come in a Steady Stream Now” is a new electronic literature piece by Richard Powers, author of the novels Prisoner’s Dilemma, The Gold Bug Variations, Galatea 2.2, and Plowing the Dark, among others. It’s told (basically) in seven emails, which are delivered in a Flash faux-email-reader frame.

I learned about the piece from Jill, who learned about it from Eric, and, reading the comments that these two made about the story, I see that they didn’t like it very much. I liked it a lot, as it happens, and I’ll try to explain why.

First, I want to mention a few things about the texture and framing of the piece. One aspect that was at least amusing was the juxtaposition of advertisements for and popup windows promoting the literary journal Ninth Letter, which published the story, with rather authentic-looking spam emails. I read this as a sort of confession that writers are also shameless advertisers – as I am – and that Powers doesn’t really have high ground to stand upon to denounce spam, if all he wanted to do was denounce it. Interestingly, he doesn’t just denounce it: he uses it to evoke memories and contemplate the world, the past, and the nature of humanity amid various consumer options and opportunities for technological enhancement.

I also found myself actually reading, or at least clicking on and looking at, the spam messages that were included as part of this Flash fiction. This prompted me to think about the different mode, or modes, of reading that I use when scrolling and paging through the social, pragmatic, and commercial messages that I find in my inbox, and the very different mode that I use when reading a Richard Powers novel or story. Within “They Come in a Steady Stream Now,” I wanted to search through every text as if I were looking for secret doors and passages; when I read my emails or shovel them into /dev/null without reading them, I am more often just seeking to know whether I am looking at an “action item” or not.

Yes, annoying pop-up windows can appear – within the Flash frame, not outside it. The first thing to say about this is that there’s a point to that. I don’t think that justifies an annoying interface by itself, but there is a point. Additionally, though, these windows only appear if you click on spam messages. You have to make the choice to be distracted from Powers’ prose, to not want to read what he’s “sending” you, in order to face that annoyance. That, I think, is an effective argument for the annoyance.

Eric was dissapointed that this piece wasn’t another Blue Company, but that didn’t really trouble me. I figured I wasn’t supposed to read for hours because “They Come in a Steady Stream Now” was presented in Flash; it didn’t seem to be something I could bookmark or that would be sent to me over a period of weeks. Also, the first of the texts that were marked as from Powers was titled “one of seven,” letting me know something about the extent of the work. The piece is short, easily read in a single sitting or even during part of a workaday lunch break, and to me, at least, it seemed to be the right length and didn’t purport to be any longer.

While Jill didn’t find the writing extraordinary, I did. It may have been years since I’ve read thirteen paragraphs online – taken as a series of paragraphs, rather than an interactive experience involving writing – that have been as engaging, provocative, reflective, and beautiful. I don’t mean to belittle the experience of receiving Blue Company, over several weeks, or the experience of rollicking through The Unknown or sifting through Reagan Library or solving an intricate and well-written interactive fiction. Those experiences are all longer and more involved, and their wonderful effects on the reader are not a result of thirteen paragraphs placed one after another. I’d be glad to be proved wrong about the quality of this writing, so let me invite you to do just that: If there are about two pages of prose online somewhere that are more extraordinary than these, presented originally to be read in a new media format, please let me know about them in a comment below.

Now, on to the spoilers.

Jill commented on “They Come in a Steady Stream Now” without having read the end of it. That’s not a crime when we’re talking about electronic literature, which often has no end. But this piece does have an end, and it’s worth reaching. After getting to the seventh email, you are asked to register by entering an email address. The final paragraph of the text – along with the rest of the text – is then sent to you in email as a PDF attachment. If you use an address that doesn’t allow attachments, or an address you never check, you don’t get the end of the story. I don’t think this is some exquisite coup de grace of the metafictional presentation of the story, but it’s something along the lines of a nice touch. Powers, who purports to be writing in December in the dates of his email messages, concludes by taking the reader outside the computer’s window, outside the box, outside the room’s window: “Out the window, just behind the screen, something like July is glinting off the gutters.”

The genius of “They Come in a Steady Stream Now” is that it, like many of Power’s novels, connects our computer-mediated commuications and experiences with the contents of our memory, the way we process it, and the environment we live in, with sunlight and gutters and missed opportunities and the future.

17 Responses to “The 7th Email (from Richard Powers)”


  1. jill/txt » more on “Steady Stream” Says:
    [...] l/txt

    15/12/2004

    [more on “Steady Stream”]

    There’s more interesting discussion of Richard Powers’s email piece at Grand Text Auto. [...]

  2. Jill Says:

    Thanks for this reading, Nick, it’s really interesting – and I’m glad to get the cheat on how to get to the end…

    I started writing a response here, but it ended up so long I put it in my own blog. Which is acting up about trackbacks, so here’s a direct link to what I wrote.

  3. nick Says:

    Jill, thanks for your very detailed re-reading. To correct a few things that I wrote: the appearance of pop-up windows over the email interface does not seemed only to be keyed to your clicking on spam messages. Also, I haven’t been able to read all of Powers’s text without clicking on spam, so my suggestion that I clicked on the spam messages of my own volition is misleading, and my excuse for the pop-up annoyance (you choose to click there) isn’t a good one. Thanks for pointing these matters out.

    However, isn’t true, as you write, that I “had to read it [the spam], or at least click on it, or nothing would happen.” I just went through the piece without ever clicking on the first or second spam messages. This seems to be a bug, rather than a feature: I think the high-level interface implementation assumes that you always click on the highlighted message, but you can click on something else and re-read it, instead, getting the pop-ups you should have gotten with spam message X but instead re-reading the “story” email Y.

    More later, but I wanted to address that…

  4. Jill Says:

    Oh really? That shows you how well-trained an email reader I am, just automatically clicking on whatever turns up next in my inbox. I guess I never tried reading a different email from the latest one. Thanks for pointing that out! And I’m looking forward to the more later, too.

  5. Malcolm Ryan Says:

    I like the idea, but the implementation could be improved. New mail only arrives while you’re reading another item. So to get by spam you either have to click on it (and stay on it for a couple of seconds) or else re-read a message you have already read. Which kinds of contradicts the title of the piece, doesn’t it? If they come in a steady stream, then they should keep coming even if you’re not paying attention.

    The popups are annoying. I’d accept it if they were a result of reading the spam, but they happen anyway. And when several happen at once, you have to dismiss them in a particular order.

    I didn’t get to the end, I didn’t have the patience. I get enough spam as it is, without deliberately courting more of it. There should at least be a way of deleting the spam without reading it. That would give me some satisfaction.

    That said, I did like the text, what I saw of it. It was interesting to read and contained some interesting reflections. But the price just became too high. Which, I guess, is a comment on spam in itself.

    Malcolm

  6. nick Says:

    That the final PDF includes all of Powers’s text, and not just the last paragraph, is a bit odd, as Jill points out on her blog. It does give the impression that this was a two-page piece of prose set by designers into this Flash interface, although it doesn’t prove that things were done that way – and if they were, that doesn’t make the piece bad, by itself.

    I think there are two clear advantages to including the “whole” story in the final email, though. First, it is an invitation to re-read everything, one that I was glad to get and that I accepted. It was also an invitation to read the story in a different way. The print-like PDF presentation shows that the Flash presentation was actually a different reading experience – had you read the story initially on the page, it would have been different.

    As for whether or not the piece was too costly in terms of time and effort, I’m used to spending dozens of hours with interactive fiction pieces, so taking a few minutes to read two pages of Richard Powers’s text wasn’t an issue for me. I agree that the cost could have been lowered with few ill effects, though, since the interactive options are very limited and this is quite a “rail game” that is mainly intended to give the feel of an email interface and add a metafictional touch at the end.

  7. scott Says:

    I like this fiction, but one thing troubles me about it. I like the work only after reading the seventh email. I need the .pdf to appreciate it. The form, up until the .pdf, serves one aspect of the content: that email, this intimate medium, on which you recieve some of your most important love letters, your most vital assignments, your most extraordinary reconnections, also ASSAULTS you with pop-up windows, with ads for Viagra and Levitra and memory-enhancing drugs that are bound to fail. The email portion of the experience is mimetic of real-world email and, from this email alone, seems a lousy way to tell a story. It is only after you literally “buy in” to the story (and to the strategy of email scam) by giving the work your personal information that you are delivered to the .pdf, the static and more safely contemplative medium that you were always after, after all, that you can see the story (or essay) as whole.

    It’s clearly a different type of experience than email novels which might, at their best, live in the medium, on its terms, rather than offering delivery from it.

    This is a smart piece. It doesn’t simply condemn the medium; it’s an elegy, but one that acknowledges the world we live in as the real. Sure, I confess that I identify with the sensation of being “convinced there was an invention, something as simple and obvious as writing, something that would change all the places we might still get to. Some clean and potent way of holding ourselves up to the light” and to sometimes feeling nostalgiac for the clarity of book culture.

    My favorite bit of this piece is that it, like most of Powers’ writing, embraces the human inside the machine. In that penultimate paragraph, the fake sender spam sends us back to a memory of someone we once knew: “before you condemn this message safely to the recycle bin, the name comes back to you. That fake senders name.” The artificial, the medium that assaults us, also reminds us of the real, or rather unearths the real within us (stainless-steel rat humans inclined to hear poetry in traffic).

    Powers is a critic of technology, but a critic who lives in a technological world, and a damn fine novelist. This is a wonderful meditation on the nature of email in relation to the world of unmediated story, of sincere undiluted telling. Like his 2002 “Literary Devices” (now apparently disappeared from the Web), this is a short meditation on living in the internet, which ultimately favors writing in more time-tested formats. I agree with Nick that this is a powerful piece of writing, but I also agree with Eric in wishing that Powers (I can’t think of anyone who would do it better) would take electronic writing for more than a spin around the block. It’s entirely possible to write both behind the screen and on it simultaneously.

  8. Tassie Says:

    I never received the end of the story. I’m going to try one more time, but the first time through I thought the end was a gimmick from Ninth Letter so that they could put me on their mailing list. The second time I did supply my address, and nothing appeared in my inbox. Sigh. I went in feeling pretty open to liking the narrative, but now that I’ve done the dodge and weave through the spam a couple of times, I am dreading doing it again.

  9. Ascent Stage Says:
    E-mailing Richard Powers
    The e-lit blogs are abuzz about “They Come in a Steady Stream Now,” a new online piece by Richard Powers, the much-lauded author who consistently joins themes of technology and art in his novels. The general tenor of the…

  10. Marie-Laure Says:

    Scott writes:
    I like this fiction, but one thing troubles me about it. I like the work only after reading the seventh email. I need the .pdf to appreciate it.
    Well, I think that’s the point. An extended essay-piece like the one that’s delivered through e-mail cannot be appreciated on a screen. It’s a medium for short fragments, for blog, not for lengthy elegies on getting old and struggling with technology and thinking about what you might miss by not taking all these wonderful time-defying drugs, and finally finding solace in personal memories–memories ironically awakened by the fake names of spammers. At the end the writer is swimming happily in the present of memories, young forever, without any of those drugs. It’s a very Proustian ending–time recaptured.
    On the other hand, Powers makes absolutely brilliant use of the medium. It’s visually interesting, clicking on the pop-ups to make them disapper is fun interaction, and the fact that we don’t get as much as we should out of the fragmented text as we do out of the .PDF version is precisely part of the message. Funny also how features that annoy us in real life, like the spam and pop ups, become entertaining in this ironic self reflection. It’s like The Sims: makes the tedious tasks of everyday life like taking showers, going to work and to the bathroom at regular intevals become a source of entertainment, because it’s not “for real.”
    About the style, I have read several of Powers novels and find his writing a little bit too contrived, too Baroque, too metaphor-laden, trying to hard to say with each sentence “I am a writer.” The result is a prose that does not flow very smoothly. But here, because it’s a short text, I think it works very well.
    In sum, it is great to see a writer of the calibre of Powers try his hand at electronic writing, even if it is, in the end, to demonstrate the superiority of print.
    In a thoroughly clever work, the most clever touch is perhaps the one delivered by my system: the e-mail from Powers with thge .PDF file ended in my trash can. But I quickly retrieved it and put in my “mails to be treasured forever” directory.

  11. Espen Aarseth Says:

    So, who will email him about this thread?

  12. John Tolva Says:

    Just did. Hopefully he’ll drop by.

  13. Richard Powers Says:

    So I get an e-mail from one J. Tolva, subject: “ A Steadier Stream.” My first thought is, “Now I’m on the Prostate Fix mailing list?” The email sends me around and, ultimately, here, where I am once again awed by the indefatigable blogosphere in action. (Somebody has to write the definitive fictional reflection of this latest flare of the community campfire. Or maybe that fiction is already playing right now, in a distributed digital decision-market Near You.) Many thanks to everyone for engaging the piece. It’s a thrill to read the responses.

    I wrote these words last year, as a commission from the BBC, who wanted a “fiction” that could be read aloud on the radio in seven minutes. I gave it to the wizards at Ninth Letter (do hunt down the graphically stunning print magazine, if you can), and the rest is all theirs. The concept and execution of the Flash theater is the work of the immensely talented Jessica Mullen, an Art and Design undergraduate at Illinois, who will graduate this spring. I shared many of the above-mentioned responses and discoveries, when I saw the finished collaboration just a couple of weeks ago.

    For the record, my own first venture into e-lit occurred back in 1977, when I wrote a few pieces of “stochastic concrete poetry” in the Tutor language for the legendary PLATO system – a network that was the precursor for many later web fixtures such as e-mail, IRC, multi-user games, and much more. Developments in the genre in the last couple of years have been breathtaking. But with truly collaborative open-source narrative spaces just now opening up, I’m tempted to cite another precursor transformative moment and say, “You ain’t heard nothing yet.”

  14. Ascent Stage Says:
    E-mailing Richard Powers
    The e-lit blogs are abuzz about “They Come in a Steady Stream Now,” a new online piece by Richard Powers, the much-lauded author who consistently joins themes of technology and art in his novels. The general tenor of the…

  15. andrew Says:

    I too liked “Steady Stream”, and the faux email Flash presentation. Even more, last year in Chicago I greatly enjoyed Powers’ live reading of “Literary Devices”, a longer (print) piece that also very interestingly addresses the medium of email, and is one of the best visions of what interactive story could be that I’ve ever heard/read. Really wonderful food for thought for an aspiring Bart like me (you’ll have to read the story to know that means :-).

    Keep ‘em coming, Richard! So glad you’ve stopped by GTxA.

  16. nick Says:

    As I was sifting through today’s contributions to the tens of thousands of blog-spams we get here on Grand Text Auto, I saw one that simply said “toyota corolla.”

    If you’re going to send us comment spam, I suppose you might as well make it a pithy reference to Don DeLillo’s White Noise.

    But I just turned to it and said fusillade, and deleted it.

  17. Bob Asta Says:

    Dear Richard, You’ve given me new hope as a writer who loves to speak out loud. I am a fan of The Echo Maker and to echo probably many people who’ve e mailed you…what’s the name of your writing machine and the software? If you can help me with this, you will be unleashing a tsunami of creativity (I promise I won’t compete with you !) Maybe you can think of this as a mentoring question, as I’ve already had great success and I just need your push. Thanks ahead of time, Bob

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