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There are things more interesting than people (lithub.com)
56 points by kevtbee on Apr 24, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 21 comments

> Richard Powers: There Are Things More Interesting Than People

>Richard Powers hates the hulking white Chevy Silverado pickup he’s driving. He apologizes after picking me up at the airport in Knoxville, Tennessee, on a cool evening in early April, that his Chevy Volt, an electric hybrid, is in the shop, and he has to maneuver this beast, with its 20 miles to the gallon, across winding country roads. He’s pretty sure the service-department guy at the Chevy dealer, having identified Powers as a treehugger, is still grinning at loaning him a four-by-four. I laugh off Powers’ apology, knowing he’s a good environmentalist, but am a little concerned when he veers into the opposing lane. “Holy, crap, sorry about that,” he says, nervously correcting an oversteer, as an oncoming truck whizzes by us.

>A few miles from Powers’ home in the Smoky Mountain foothills, we stop at a scenic overlook. Powers strikes up a conversation with a Tennessee old-timer, who’s standing beside an immaculately restored 1935 Ford pickup. He opens the engine hood for us. “Ford’s early V8,” he says. “Look at that flathead,” Powers says. “A beauty.”

Bringing the subtext to light: the journalist who wrote this piece disagrees with the assertion "there are things more interesting than people". He then goes about in advancing this view in a variety of ways:

1. He writes in a way so that the most interesting subject in his article is a person.

2. He creates negative emotions at the start of the article so as to emotionally color how people will read the tamer, more objective rest of the article.

3. He shares his (negative) personal experiences with the interviewee so as to both create a sense of sympathy for the journalist and a sense of animosity towards the interviewee. That is, he brings up unrelated information so as to bolster his main subtextual argument.

Among other ways. I leave their spotting as an exercise for the reader.

An ingenious thesis but I'm not at all convinced. In particular, I don't see anything there that looks like the journalist is trying to provoke "a sense of animosity towards the interviewee".

Let's take the bit you quote. The first thing we learn about Powers, after the fact that he doesn't like the car he's driving, is that he (1) took the trouble to pick the journalist up from the airport, and then (2) apologized to the journalist for something minor that wasn't even his fault, (3) in a humourous way. We're told that Powers is "a good environmentalist". Most of us, especially readers of this sort of thing, are likely to feel good about that, but it might suggest a certain sanctimoniousness and car-hostility ... so the next thing we get to see is Powers appreciating a fine old motor vehicle, and making friendly conversation with his neighbours in the process.

I'm really not seeing what's meant to make me feel a sense of animosity here.

Here's another paragraph from the article, pretty much the only one that's wholly occupied with description of Powers.

"Powers may strike dissonant notes about his novels’ public image, but in conversation he never resorts to fanfare. Still charmingly lanky at 60, with a boyish face just starting to pay a debt to aging, he articulates his views with an intelligence so free of self-importance that you wonder if there’s something wrong with his wiring. He listens patiently and respectfully, then dazzles with quiet authority."

Charming. Youthful. Intelligent. Humble. Patient. Respectful. Dazzling. Authoritative. I guess you might describe someone that way if you were hoping to make your audience hate them out of jealousy, but I really don't get that impression from the article.

Pretty much everything else there seems to me like it puts Powers in a positive light, too.

So I can kinda buy claim 1 and maybe claim 2. Claim 3, though? Not so much.

That the world exists only to satiate our appetites is practically a founding doctrine of consumerism. That kind of "human exceptionalism" actually degrades man and reduces him to a mere consumer and then corrupts him and renders him an obsessive, exploitative, perverse, and disordered creature, a voracious idiot and a pathetic disgrace. If you want to live the good life, you must respect human nature and its inherent end(s). Dismiss ends, and not only do human beings unravel and become unintelligible, but so does everything in existence. No bespoke delusion engineering here.

Opposite of Epicurus' philosophy huh?

And yet this article is about 75% human interest fluff and 25% substance.

A point I agree with, though the article very much focused on people instead of the interesting bits.

Reminds me of when people criticize some sci-fi works for lacking in character development. My default response is: almost every other literary genre is about character development. I read sci-fi precisely because it's about ideas, about things more important than how people feel about each other. If I wanted to experience more of the interpersonal drama, I'd pick up a romance novel instead. Alas, I see enough of that in the real life.

It's an exaggeration to claim that "almost every other literary genre is about character development". Detective, espionage and historical novels usually aren't "about" character development, I think, and those are probably the biggest genres if you exclude romance and sci-fi.

Of course one would expect to see some character development in a story that covers a large part of anyone's life but that doesn't make the story "about" character development.

Most so-called literary fiction (the stuff that gets lots of highbrow reviews, not so many sales, wins prizes this year and is totally forgotten in two years' time) tends to be about character development, perhaps even more so than romance.

I think that in a lot of Sci-fi the people still play a critical role in the story, alongside the ideas. Not all sci-fi stories are about the ideas. They can often contain how the ideas impact people, how people use the ideas to shape their world and so on.

I'm fine with that. I like people. I guess my main objection is against critics arguing sci-fi should look like regular old human story, but with sci-fi flavour. For me, the setting is an important part of the story, not just some irrelevant background styling.

It was only last night that I was thinking, assuming the eventuality of the emergence of a self-sustaining super-intelligance (doesn't matter whether it takes form a hybrid long living cyborg race or not ), what justifications would it have to keep around the human race besides the kind of empathy that drives humans to conservation for things whose absence would not affect the ecology? (IOW, is the only way a hypothetical superior lifeform will consider letting human exist be based on the the existence of empathy in the lifeform? Or is there any other rational reason that necessitates keeping us around?)... (IyOW, purely logical, uncaring children of the elite who'd have the benefits of longevity research as well as superior intellect may consider rodent conservation more important than human conservation... aka There possibly are things more interesting than people)

I can't help but think that perhaps there is something in brain structure and genetics which creates one class of people focused primarily on people and another class focused primarily on ideas. I couldn't agree more that there are things more interesting than people, but obviously the author wants to sell us on the opposite notion.

this is a beautiful piece of writing, thank you for sharing.

Was framing 20 mpg as if it were bad supposed to be facetious?

I don't purchase vehicles that get less than 30mpg, so his crack really isn't out of line. Especially considering his Volt is a plug-in that can be in all-electric mode most of its time.

A basic gasoline sedan can still often get 30mpg, so you don't have to go to subcompacts or hybrids to get decent gas mileage.

In the context of the hybrid that he usually drives, it's pretty bad (about half of the gas-only fuel economy for a Chevy Volt, and about 1/5 of the "MPGe" rating).

20 is almost twice as good as what I apparently get, which I found out with an obd2 reader to be decently less than it's supposed to be, but I don't really mind.

What are you driving? Even my 6 cylinder sports car stays usually well above that, and my everyday Ford Focus rarely goes below 30.

1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee, v8 4.7L. Part of it is how it can only use 4wd.

Favorite vehicle I've driven so far.

I really like Jeeps too, but they give 14 mpg at their best, so 20mpg does seem good relatively, and 30mpg impossible, even if many sedans can reach it.

So you're just being deliberately daft, got it.

No, I was under the impression 20 is decent, 12 is mediocre, and 30+ is "great."

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