My belief," Thomas Pynchon told CNN in a phone interview in 1997, "is that 'recluse' is a code word generated by journalists ... meaning, 'doesn't like to talk to reporters.'"
At the time the un-photographed author was angrily responding to CNN's attempts to capture footage of him but Pynchon has, in truth, enjoyed, toyed with, and wholly incorporated into his identity, the sobriquet of "recluse." With the publication this month of Inherent Vice, his seventh novel over a 46-year-span, it's time to reflect on what being a literary recluse means and whether we're seeing the last of a kind.
The "media-shy recluse" was, as Pynchon noted, an invention of the media. To suggest that a refusal to publicize one's image is an illness akin to agoraphobia is the mark of a paranoid, fractured culture that Pynchon himself has so often brilliantly written about. What's amazing about Pynchon is how little it took to turn him into a walking myth. While he has been generous with blurbs for authors, published criticism in various magazines, and even wrote an essay for The Daily Show over the years, Pynchon has also refused traditional public appearances and other promotional boilerplate. That this alone has led to speculations about his "true" identity, from the ironic (he's actually J.D. Salinger), to the absurd (he was the Unabomber) obviously tickles the hell out Pynchon's funny bone, as evidenced by his cameo on The Simpsons.
The long wait of 17 years between his breakout novel Gravity's Rainbow and 1990's Vineland did provide fertile ground for these myths to sprout, but at least Pynchon has come back with a relatively steady stream of work. Then there's Salinger, who hasn't published a new work since 1965.
This year, a lawsuit to stop a Swedish author from publishing a sequel to TheCatcher in the Rye brought Salinger back to the spotlight he has tried to avoid the last four decades. By all accounts terrible, J.D. California's 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye was squashed by Salinger's lawyers and is not available for sale in the United States. Lucky them.
Unlike Pynchon, Salinger is ham-handed at acting the recluse. Attacking what amounted to fan fiction and giving it a momentary allure of samizdat is only the latest in a long line of injudicious moves for a man ostensibly wishing to be left alone. In the 1990s he also sued to stop the exhibition of an Iranian film adaptation of Franny and Zooey and sued to stop publication of his letters to other writers. I'm not interested in Salinger's work enough to engage in full armchair psychoanalysis, but I will say that the most noticeable difference between Pynchon and him is that Salinger did partake of the spotlight in his early career while Pynchon never has. (Even in 1973, a vaudeville comedian was sent in Pynchon's stead to accept the National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow.)
Despite his reputation, Salinger seems to stumble back into the public eye an awful lot but without the onus and risk of continuing to publish.
Sometimes a writer labelled as recluse does come out of Upper Westside hiding. Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mocking Bird, has recently braved the public for presidents, honorary degrees, and, of course, O Magazine. Lee is no Boo Radley, yet she has not published a book since her first. In the intervening 49 years, To Kill a Mockingbird has become so entrenched in adolescent reading that high schools have no doubt built the foundations of new wings using old frayed copies of the novel.
Lee's absence has also inspired its own myths. The most enduring one is that the novel was written, or heavily rewritten, by Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote. Several years ago letters from Capote surfaced that some scholars suggest put the matter to rest: Harper Lee wrote her novel. But the implication that Capote himself was the source of the rumour gives the notion a persistent, if suspiciously boozy, sliver of plausibility for those who believe that not being able to write another book is an admission of guilt, if not an outright social defect.
None of these writers are recluses in the true meaning of the term. None of them have had to sign up for Meals On Wheels; they simply have different ways of being public figures. This hasn't stopped the reading public from swimming in a collective fantasy about the reclusive genius: an artist so caught up in the act of creation the work is impossible to finish, like a Spruce Goose made of text. Also note there aren't enough recluses to go around, given recent attempts at inventing these figures from whole cloth, an endeavour that usually ends in disaster.
All this points to an endangerment of the species caused not least of which by the fact that young authors these days can't afford to miss a single damn phone call, much less a camera crew. With the idea of the media wanting to profile literary writers becoming itself an anachronism, will we ever again have authors whose stature - and contracts - allow for decades long hiatus? Since one can now lose a good portion of Facebook friends by just taking a week off from oversharing, probably not.
It was nice not knowing you, literary recluses.