Hiding Away30 April 2013
Even the most casual reader will tell you, the publishing landscape has changed. The last decade has shaken the industry with an increase in technologisation and a further decrease in people actually willing to pick up a book. Marketing techniques as dispiriting as ‘buy one book, get one free e-book’ have followed in an effort to prevent a once lucrative industry from nosediving. Disappearing in the midst, however, is the ageing ideal held sacred by writers like Thomas Pynchon that it is the writing that matters, and not the writer. An admirable value, true enough, but the extent to which it is still financially and even socially viable is becoming increasingly uncertain. As it becomes ever more commonplace for an author’s personality to be a marketing tool and commodity in itself, is it still possible to be a writer of challenging fiction and let the work speak solely on its own merits?
Thomas Pynchon is as notorious for his elusiveness as he is revered for his complex fiction. Winner of the National Book Award for his postmodern opus Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), we know not what he looks like, nor where he lives. He is releasing a new novel, The Bleeding Edge, in September of this year, but if past experience is anything to go by, there will be no readings or book signings. Instead, there will be an incremental leaking of information up until the book’s release, whereupon it will be reviewed in hushed tones and read avidly by fans and conspiracy theorists alike. He will talk through his agent and chuckle at a world scrambling for certainty where there will never be any, just like the characters in his books.
Pynchon has dismissed accusations of reclusiveness however, half-joking that “recluse is a code word generated by journalists…meaning, ‘doesn’t like talking to reporters'”. Granted, Pynchon doesn’t fit the mould of the recluse cliché as comfortably as writers like J.D. Salinger; he continues to write regularly and has not yet hidden from the world in order to escape fiction. He simply, as he puts it, “prefers not to be photographed”. So rather than being a calculated assault on the press and the pitfalls of literacy celebrity, Pynchon’s shadowy persona is a conscious attempt to get people to read his books as they are, beyond the obscuring lens of autobiography. But in an evolving marketplace where the modus operandi is to sell yourself lest you remain unread, this kind of author is becoming critically endangered.
Indeed, many prominent authors of contemporary literary fiction have no qualms with projecting themselves to the public. Bret Easton Ellis is more than happy to spout unsolicited opinions of dubious ethical value via Twitter, and Margaret Atwood regularly communicates with fans on Goodreads, the social media site for bibliophiles. Both authors were firmly established long before the publishing industry was dealt its hand, sure. But up-and-coming authors like Teju Cole and Amelia Gray harness Twitter for their own purposes too: Cole for philosophical aphorism he once described as “small fates”, and Gray for absurdist fragments such as “seems like if you cracked him open he’d just be pills and a record slowed down to 33 rpm”. Unique though such online meditations may be, they remain calculated techniques of keeping authors’ names at the social forefront, and a proven method of boosting book sales.
It goes without saying that Pynchon won’t touch this stuff with a twice-sterilised, Olympic-length javelin, and in this he is an anomaly. Even contemporary writers of similarly experimental bent such as Joshua Cohen are willing to concede interviews and dust-jacket portraiture. In all likelihood, this general readiness to reveal oneself to the public stems from the publisher’s need to market a book and from the writers’ Gravity’s Rainbow was published in 1973, Viking Press was receiving orders at a rate of 700 copies per hour. To put that in shattering perspective, nowadays a literary novel—let alone one as dense as Gravity’s Rainbow—is very lucky to sell more than a total of 7000 copies. How many copies would a debut novel be likely to sell now if the author was confident enough in their work to just hide in a hovel and be done with the whole affair?
It will be interesting to see how The Bleeding Edge sells in comparison to Pynchon’s earlier work, now that generations have come and gone between his peak days and the present. One thing’s for sure, however: the end of Pynchon will demarcate one publishing era from the next, and we won’t know whether to celebrate this new era or to sit saddened, until it has arrived.