Monday, August 10, 2009

On the Occasion of Mr. Joseph Bottum's Review of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice

Mr. Bottum,

Congratulations, commendations and kudos! My proverbial hat, sir, is off to you for
your recent review of literary icon Thomas Pynchon's new noirish novel Inherent Vice in the August 7 edition of The Wall Street Journal. In a few hundred words, you did far more than leave Pynchon's single attempt at non-literary fiction bleeding out in the gutter. No, you sliced up the entire genre field! Ballsy, brilliant and utterly mad -- the perfect literary crime, if I do say so myself.

Let us consider your first paragraph, fine sir. In it you write:

"Inherent Vice" is the closest to beach reading that Thomas Pynchon has ever produced. Of course, take-to-the-beach best sellers are nearly always genre fiction: thrillers and mysteries and romances. They're usually competent, typically easy and strictly conventional books: novels by courtesy; narrower in purpose and range than what novel writing is supposed to allow. That doesn't make them bad. It just makes them small. Which raises a question: If the 72-year-old Thomas Pynchon, high-flying author of such iconic works as "V." (1963) and "Gravity's Rainbow" (1973), is reduced to writing genre fiction -- in this case, a mystery-thriller with an overlay of irony -- who is left to write novels? Real novels, that is?
A master stroke from the start! Rather than denouncing the field outright, you slash it with a half-dozen left-handed compliments, calling it "small," "easy," "conventional," "narrower in purpose and range," "not bad" and "usually competent." (Ah, that usually really gets the claret running!) We know it must be the villain since it has "reduced" the great Pynchon to writing novels that aren't "real."

Further huzzahs to you, my good man, for keeping us diverted from the fact that many lauded literary works could be considered genre pieces today. Best to not consider Frankenstein, Fahrenheit 451 and The Lord of the Flies. And the way in which you kept the onlookers so preoccupied that they failed to notice literary fiction is its own genre -- genius! It's harder for witnesses to excuse your handiness with a shiv -- wait, excuse me -- with a pen when they realize how many of the "real" novels contain structures so unconventional as to be well-nigh impenetrable. Oh, and aren't we glad they didn't notice the standard literary preoccupations with angst, adultery and internal monologue, as well as the typical antipathy toward robust plotting?

Not that we'll have to worry too much about plot from future authors of literary fiction. Giving the literati their due is necessary if you want to make sure nothing happens to that nice, little novel you've got there. (Although since most literary fiction seems to be creeping closer to four-digit page counts, "little" isn't the right word, is it?) But getting the public to actually read such works, that's a problem the Family has never quite been able to solve …

With Sincere Confustication and Awe,

Loren Eaton

(Picture: CC 2008 by


Chestertonian Rambler said...
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Chestertonian Rambler said...
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Chestertonian Rambler said...

See, my new motto works for everything: "Haud virum nisi arma cano."

(I can hardly sing of men without singing of weapons.)

But of course, I speak only from the narrow confines of genre fiction--things like the Illiad, which is all about action, people dying, and strictly conventional ways of acting and speaking. I mean, the whole thing ends with some argument about getting a body back to be buried. Where's the newness in that? What part breaks with convention? For the love of Intelligence, there isn't even any smug reassurance of the superiority of those who eternally question over those who actually do things. Clearly, this is escapist literature at its silliest.

(And hey, now that I think of it, isn't the Illiad itself a "Beach novel"? I mean, the whole thing takes place on a beach, right?)

Not to mention later genre-fic "classics." Chandler only talks about a man who yearns for nobility and dignity while fighting the evils of human corruption inside and outside the law. McCarthy uses images of violence to talk about the emptiness of what he calls our "secular age." Even in fantasy, where one would hope to find the wideness and depths of dadaist meaninglessness, you just have authors like McKinley, who concerns herself with the psychological trauma of incestuous rape.

Where, I ask, is the seriousness of all this? Where is the difficulty? Now mind you, as a critic I certainly want to be fair. All of these novels have action and violence, and the desire to find out what happens can be strong enough to while away many a day avoiding the beauties of sea and surf. But where, I ask you, is the true breadth of life? Where are the Significant novels? Where, in a word, does it ask what it means to be a thrice-divorced professor of Creative Writing with nothing better to do than to mock other people's foibles? Where does it examine the anguish of an Artist looking in at his own work and seeing nothing but himself?

It doesn't. Obviously, because it lacks the proper breadth. But at least it's good to know one's place, with the non-heierarchical literary guardians so helpfully leading the way.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

(Of course, in all fairness, there *are* a lot of works of genre-fiction without grand aspirations, that simply want to tell a gripping (but insignificant) story of suspense. "Entertainment" and "genre" are often intertwined. And I, as a reader, have no problem relaxing with something pleasant and unchallenging. But I think Bottum's problem is that he elides the categories of "conventional [using conventions]" with the category of "conventional [repeating what has gone before, with minimal creative thought.]"

Also, the book sounds really, really bad. Maybe Thomas Pynchon is equally to blame, for assuming that there is some Platonic heierarchy of art forms. Maybe he doesn't want to admit that someone who can write immaculately-researched domestic fiction could not effortlessly wring significance out of the "narrower" world of genre-fiction.

Or maybe he would rather simply mock convention than go to the work of understanding what--and how--it means.

Loren Eaton said...

Could that Latin phrase be roughly translated into "I must indulge in gun porn"? (The link is entirely 100% safe-for-work, just in case anyone was wondering. We're a family-friendly blog here. Well, pretty much.)


The only "significant" literary fiction I think I've enjoyed recently was some stuff from Thomas Wolfe. But, come to think of it, that wasn't very recent. Am I low-brow for agreeing with C.S. Lewis? He said that "every good book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment ... is like a qualifying examination."

Inherent Vice does look pretty bad, truth be told. Gumshoes and drug-addled 1970's culture don't mix well to my way of thinking. I don't know if it's just because Pynchon doesn't know how to write genre or if he's past his prime or if it's something else entirely. I'm not familiar with his artistic thought or his work, so I can't even begin to make an informed judgment. But the arrogance with which Bottum throws an entire category of literature under the bus takes my breath away.