Why Do Pynchon, Ballard And Wallace Provoke Such Online Loyalty?

This article, from Louis Goddard, originally appeared on The Times Online UK site on 7/11/09.

Louis Goddard wonders what turns some writers into internet cults.

Out in the farthest reaches of the internet, mediated only by e-mail and a rudimentary code of interpretive etiquette, five men are discussing the first page of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland. Not the uncharacteristically straightforward first sentence (“Later than usual one summer morning . . .”), nor even the title page, but the dedication and publishing information —the dates, addresses and typographical notes that most readers skip on their way to the fictional meat. “There’s no dedication in V or The Crying of Lot 49,” one reader remarks. Gravity’s Rainbow is dedicated to Richard Farina and Against the Day is dedicated to the light in the darkness and Thelonious Sphere Monk.” This is the beginning of a Pynchon-L “group read”, and a beginning in every sense of the word.

Pynchon-L, the Thomas Pynchon discussion forum, was set up more than 15 years ago and still runs on the same basic system. As Jules Siegel puts it in Lineland, his bizarre account of this literary fringe group: “You join a list by subscribing to it. Members send their thoughts by e-mail to a central computer and all those messages go out to everyone subscribed to the list. To get off the list, you unsubscribe.” It’s a simple arrangement, but one that has survived the social networking revolution and the ultra-plurality of the blogosphere.

In fact, it feels strangely appropriate in the case of an author such as Pynchon who, in a 1984 piece for The New York Times, set out the case for a particular sort of enlightened Luddism. While his sprawling novels are sometimes said to have anticipated the speed and hyperconnectivity of the internet, it’s a lot easier to imagine the infamous recluse sending a few anonymous e-mails than, say, updating his Twitter feed.

Despite the list’s sizeable academic membership, it remains open to anyone with an e-mail address and maintains an eclectic standard of discussion — topics range from rigorous, line-by-line exegesis to vaguely relevant news stories.

The jewels in the electronic crown are the list’s “group reads”. Situated somewhere between the common or garden book group meeting and the academic symposium, these readings often take months to complete — sections of the book in question, usually about 50 pages long, are assigned to volunteers, each of whom then takes his or her turn to make a virtual presentation and to lead the discussion as the group rolls along. As a method of collaborative criticism the group read is innovative and exciting, and it works. Having organised painstakingly meticulous expeditions through the best part of Pynchon’s oeuvre, the list has built up a considerable body of interpretive knowledge, much of which has been translated into the pages of the Pynchon Wiki project, a Wikipedia-esque attempt to create open and hyperlinked guides to all six of the author’s major works.

Pynchon isn’t the only author to have been graced by such digital scrutiny — since 1996 waste.org has also played host to Wallace-L, a discussion group dedicated to the work of the late David Foster Wallace. When Wallace died in September last year Wallace-L was one of the first places to know, and the following few days received a flood of personal remembrances from fans, friends and former students, all more true and moving than any of the newspaper obituaries. This is not to say that these obituaries weren’t taken into account — on the contrary, list members spent weeks collecting every scrap of media coverage, fragments shored against Wallace’s already formidable reputation. And as everyone else looked over at the brick on their bookshelves and thought “I really must read that some time”, the members of Wallace-L began their third in-depth group read of Infinite Jest.

Read the rest of the article on The Times Online UK.

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