Pynchon, Detective Fiction, and the Dismissal of Genre


Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Inherent Vice, is a detective story set in California in the early 1970s.  Like most, if not all, of his previous novels, it contains a number of idiosyncratic characters, surreal settings, unforeseen plot twists, and the occasional song lyric that he has written specifically for this narrative.  It’s a bit whacky, in other words, but his use of language seems to be as sharp as ever.

I’m curious about the reception, however.  In the past few weeks, I have read a number of not-so-hot reviews, in places like The New York Times, Slate, New York, and other venues.  Louis Menand in The New Yorker dismissed it as “a generally lighthearted affair.”  What I have found interesting in these pieces is the criticism of the choice of genre that Pynchon has chosen for the novel.  It seems that these critics cannot understand why it is that Pynchon would choose to write a detective story.  These writers not-so-subtly imply that it is clearly beneath him to do so, and that the novel’s inherent flaw, if not vice, is the very genre in which it resides.

Why the hating on detective fiction in these reviews?  Why the implication that a “serious” novelist like Pynchon, someone who writes important, canonical fiction, shouldn’t be wasting his time with such a lightweight narrative structure?

I suppose this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.  Critics and readers have often taken detective fiction as little more than entertainment, though starting in the 1960s onward, many critics began to recognize the ways in which detective fiction reflects, refracts, and engages in the culture of its time.  Still, like romance or science fiction, detective fiction is often marginalized as “only” genre fiction.  Notice how these genres have their own aisles and areas in bookstores: they are seen as somehow different, not part of Literature (note the capital “L”).

And yet “serious” writers have often written detective fiction.  Obviously, we can begin with Poe – after all, he’s in pretty much every course on American literature of the nineteenth century.  But Joseph Conrad also immediately comes to mind, as does Umberto Eco.  Such heavyweight contemporary writers as Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and Martin Amis have written detective novels.

The genre itself, which was admittedly at its commercial (and possibly literary) zenith in the 1920s and 1930s, continues to enjoy a great deal of vitality in terms of its commercial appeal and its artistic achievements.  James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price are just a few of the outstanding writers who utilize the genre in compelling ways and have written exceedingly fine novels.  They use the genre to interrogate issues of race and ethnicity, America’s past, class, and ideology.  These are sophisticated writers dramatizing critical issues in America through the lens of the detective story.  Chabon, Amis, and Lethem likewise use the genre to not only think about some of these issues, but to explore issues of language and ontology.

Pynchon’s decision to write a detective novel and to situate it in California in the early 1970s should not be dismissed as mere lowbrow fluff.  While it was a bit of a fallow period for detective fiction, other than the work of Ross Macdonald, there was a renaissance in the mid- to late-1970s with the emergence of such writers as Sara Paretsky, Mosley, Ellroy, Robert Parker, and others.  Moreover, the early 1970s was the era, as well as the setting, of Polanski’s Chinatown and Altman’s The Long Goodbye – both of which are not only crucial detective narratives, but important films.

There is a rich history to the genre, and Pynchon’s work will take its place in it.  Of course, he already has a place in the history – The Crying of Lot 49 is essentially a detective novel and is often taught as one.  Why did the reviewers of his latest novel seem to forget about that one?  This isn’t even new territory for Pynchon.  But why let such details get in the way of the dismissal of a serious writer’s embrace of a lowbrow genre?


One Response

  1. Just discovered your blog, huge fan.

    I’m a huge Pynchon fan, even though I’ve only slogged through Lot 49, V., and part of Against the Day, but I find your comments very interesting.

    There seems to be a distinct form of literary elitism today, between the literati and ‘the lay people.’ I’m sure if he’d written a horror novel he’d have been just as criticized.

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