Why don’t women read Pynchon? The question’s been posed and bandied about on the blogosphere recently in response to Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel and the spate of reviews for Against the Day written largely by men. It came as a surprise, this question: as a devoted Pynchonite — and a woman — I’d never thought of Pynchon’s work as gender-specific. But according to one blogger, Pynchon’s writing presents obstacles women don’t care to surmount. And the few searing female reviews of the book that have come out support the theory. So I started evaluating the ways Pynchon could turn women off.
The writing is misogynistic. Male-character driven. Phallic-image obsessed. He’s got books about rockets exploding. And war. And heinous sex acts with destitute women. And more war. His protagonists — Stencil, Slothrop, Zoyd, Mason, and Dixon — are all men. Oedipa Maas, the heroine of The Crying of Lot 49, is the only main female protagonist in the whole oeuvre, and her voice is essentially gender neutral. It’s not hard to see why women might be deterred by Thomas Pynchon.
Apparently it’s been a “guy thing” for quite some time. Khachig Tölölyan of Pynchon Notes, a small literary journal on the man, tells me that the earliest Pynchon fans tended to be younger men, and the reviews that came out of that era, for novels like V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), were written almost exclusively by men. According to Tölölyan, even today most of the web sites that discuss Pynchon are “dominated by loud men.”
Yet Tölölyan assures me that once you rise to the level of academia, the playing field evens out. He says that “some of Pynchon's most discerning and admiring critics have always been women,” and that female Pynchon scholars are both influential and numerous.
So why the perceived disparity in the everyday readership?
The thing about Pynchon that women readers may not like — indeed, that plenty of readers may not like — is that his characters are not psychological. They lack emotional depth. There are no personalities to latch onto. No tense, loaded relationships or bonds. The characters are propelled by concepts bigger than themselves.
This seems to be the problem Michiko Kakutani alludes to in her acerbic review of Pynchon’s new book. She singles out Mason & Dixon, Pynchon’s 1996 offering, for praise: it’s the only one of Pynchon’s novels where the characters are truly developed, where they are well-drawn enough for a reader to divine their inner workings. Laura Miller, in her pan of Against the Day for Salon.com, also mentions Mason & Dixon, and for the same reason: she felt it had characters you could actually care about.
They’re right, of course. Pynchon rarely creates three-dimensional protagonists. And that doesn’t seem to bother men (or me) as much as it does women. Perhaps women have been predisposed by culture to find entertainment in the interpersonal, while men seek it in the abstract or the concrete, but not in the human.