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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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In a fascinating LA Times piece published today, it is remarked, in conversation with a close friend of Thomas Pynchon that:

In an era in which a Wikipedia scan identifies Pynchon's wife, a literary agent, and son by name, his privacy could be one avid Googler away.
She's discussed this precariousness with Pynchon. "In today's world" she said, "the privacy he gets is that people seldom read."

So why don't we? Why don't those of us for whom Pynchon is a professional, and personal, interest do this? The answer, to me, seems self explanatory, but before answering, it's worth giving a brief history of Pynchon's stance on privacy.

Pynchon's Hand
Featured image: Pynchon's hand giving a V-Sign around the door. From the LA Times. Used here to demonstrate the subject at hand on a non-commercial, academic basis; it is believed that this constitutes fair dealing. If you are the copyright holder and object, please contact me with a takedown request and I will do my best to comply ASAP.

Pynchon has never given journalists interviews, has never appeared in public (neither for book signings nor even to collect the National Book Award) and there are only a handful of photographs of the author in circulation, almost certainly none of which now would give any idea of what he looks like at age 73.

In 1997, a CNN journalist successfully tracked Pynchon down. Upon learning of this, Pynchon phoned CNN, asked that they not run the footage and uttered his now famous statement: "My belief is that 'recluse' is a code word generated by journalists ... meaning, 'doesn't like to talk to reporters'." He also, according to CNN, said: "Let me be unambiguous. I prefer not to be photographed."

After the CNN debacle came the documentary, A Journey into the Mind of [P.] which attempted to isolate Pynchon in the CNN clip, to limited interest. Several critics, especially Charles Hollander, but also Steven Weisenburger in unearthing Pynchon's early Ford Foundation grant, took a very biographical line. In recent years, Luc Hermann and Jon Krafft have been working on the V. typescript at the Ransom Centre, which is a far more historical -- and thereby authorially specific -- mode of scholarship. It seems that Pynchon could be on the verge of exposure.

Yet he never has been.

Here's some thoughts on why that might be, and why it should be, beyond Pynchon's own assertion that it's because people don't read (the people who do read Pynchon tend to be somewhat obsessive types):

Meeting your heroes isn't always a great idea
Just because you admire/like someone's work, doesn't mean that you will like them as a person, nor (and this is especially true) that they will like you. Sure, I've thought "it would be great to go down the pub with Pynchon", but what would I actually say? Basing a friendship on an asymmetrical hero-worship is unlikely to lead to any meaningful connection; people are more than the sum of their work and true meetings of friends is usually down to chance. It's always a pleasure when I speak to Russell Hoban, but again, this is not always going to be the case. Pynchon could take an extreme dislike to me and my work for all I know. I don't share his (I'm presuming) taste for marijuana. It's probably best that we stay in our own spheres.

If you respect the work, respect the personal wishes of the author. Pynchon gives us, in his dissociation from public comment, scope to read his work in as many ways as we like, except for the personal. Respect this.

The Weberian strains in Pynchon's fiction bring to light the ways in which the rational disenchantment of the world has led to the worst horrors of the contemporary age. Meeting the author can only serve to demystify the works. It could be a huge disappointment (I don't think it would be, although that's the obvious belief behind the desire to meet an author).

If you want your books signed... you really should forget it. I'm as guilty of this as anybody (I just can't quite dispel the desire to have one), but, at the end of the day, fetishising a signed edition because of its authorial aura isn't the right way to go. I'm really pleased with the decision to put this collection up in order to fund a writing scholarship, but the "aura" that these artifacts have is actually inscribed in a world of commodification and supply-and-demand capitalism. Thought experiment: if every Pynchon book was signed, would you still value a signed edition so highly? Of course you wouldn't. Clearly, the value comes from the rarity of the object and so the desire to possess one comes from either egotistic ("look what I've got"), or financial, motive. That said, I still can't help but want one (my birthday is on the 26th of May, just so you know!), but know in my heart of hearts I shouldn't because it serves no purpose. In this case, I do know what's going on, and I let it go on, as Gravity's Rainbow might have put it.

Those are the reasons I could come up with; comments welcome with your own reasons or critiques.