Against the Fray

Thomas Pynchon may not have been susceptible to the Rake’s $49 check (and neither apparently is Dave Eggers), but the Ian McEwan flap has had Pynchon issuing a letter in support of McEwan.

Then again, on second thought, given that “indispensable” is misspelled in the letter, I’m wondering if this message truly came from Pynchon. Surely a man of his scrutiny wouldn’t have committed such a rudimentary solecism. And if Pynchon is referencing the Internet, why would he be working off a typewriter? I suspect a possible hoax, unless Pynchon, Ellison-like, clings obstinately to his typewriter. (via Maud)

Here’s the full text:

Given the British genius for coded utterance, this could all be about something else entirely, impossible on this side of the ocean to appreciate in any nuanced way — but assuming that it really is about who owns the rights to describe using gentian violet for ringworm, for heaven’s sake, allow me a gentle suggestion. Oddly enough, most of us who write historical fiction do feel some obligation to accuracy. It is that Ruskin business about “a capacity responsive to the claims of fact, but unoppressed by them.” Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the encyclopedia, the Internet, until, with luck, at some point, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act — it is simply what we do. The worst you can call it is a form of primitive behavior. Writers are naturally drawn, chimpanzee-like, to the color and the music of the English idiom we are blessed to have inherited. When given the chance we will usually try to use the more vivid and tuneful among its words. I cannot of course speak for Mr. McEwan’s method of processing, but should be very surprised indeed if something of the sort, even for brief moments, had not occurred during his research for Atonement. Gentian violet! Come on. Who among us could have resisted that one?

Memoirs of the Blitz have borne indispensible [sic] witness, and helped later generations know something of the tragedy and heroism of those days. For Mr. McEwan to have put details from one of them to further creative use, acknowledging this openly and often, and then explaining it clearly and honorably, surely merits not our scolding, but our gratitude.


  1. Actually, when I ran into Will Self the other night, he told me that he works off a typewriter because, although he’s well aware of the Internet, looking at a computer terminal for any prolonged duration is painful to his eyes, so it doesn’t strike me in the least odd that Pynchon might be aware broadly of what is being said on Teh Intarwebs even if he’s not a habitual user.

  2. 1) According to the Telegraph got this from Pynchon’s UK agent. I hope they have hade the decency to double check.

    2) Martin Amis reported in “Experience” that McEwans used to have lunch with Pynchon when he was in NY, so I am not surprised at all to see him give some support.

  3. Typo notwithstanding, the syntax and prose style of the letter seem genuinely Pynchonesque, and that bit about “the British genius for coded utterance” comes straight out of “Against the Day.” I’m willing to bet that this IS the genuine article. And typos? Heck, there are more than 50 typos in “Against the Day,” so I guess even Pynchon isn’t above the odd mistake.

  4. I dunno. If you look at the earliest drafts of Gravity’s Rainbow, you see such grievous errors as “A creaming across the pi.”

    Jeff “It Had to Be Done” VanderMeer

  5. It’s funny that he goes into rapture about gentian, because Gravity’s Rainbow was the first place I noted the word (the second was, of course, the poetry of Lawrence).

    In fact, using Amazon’s Search Inside the Book, I see that Pynchon uses ‘gentian’ 4 times in Gravity’s Rainbow–but alas, none of them is gentian violet. Which in turn reminds me of his intro to Slow Learner, where he professes disturbance at his own overuse of the word ‘tendril’ in his early works (but it only shows up twice in Gravity’s Rainbow).

    I heart Pynchon.

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