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Thomas Pynchon

by Craig Stark

#147 6 September 2010

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an abridged version of the complete article. Click here to purchase.]


FULL NAME: Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr.


BIRTH/DEATH: May 8, 1937 -



Thomas Pynchon was thrust into the literary limelight after the release of his first novel, V., in 1963 but in no sense of the word was he ever to bask in it. Instead he has chosen to lie, as he might put it, doggo - quietly removed from public view for the intervening 45 years. But not quite a Salingeresque retreat, perhaps. In 1997 CNN filmed Pynchon on the streets of Manhattan shortly after the release of his sixth novel, Mason & Dixon. Pynchon protested, and CNN reluctantly agreed to air the piece without identifying the author. When asked to explain his so-called reclusive nature, he replied, "My belief is that 'recluse' is a code word generated by journalists ... meaning, 'doesn't like to talk to reporters,'" at least kicking the door open to the possibility that he does like to talk to some others. But, recluse or not, what we are left with is mystery - and collectors love mystery.

The inquisitive can view the clip here.

There's more to the Pynchon mystique. Word on the street is and has long been that his novels are difficult, inaccessible, etc., but does this matter if underneath it all pounds the heart of a rocker? It was none other than Timothy Leary, in fact, who dubbed Gravity's Rainbow the "Old Testament of cyberpunk." Do rock fans listen to the lyrics? Sometimes; sometimes not. But sometimes all it takes is a resounding beat to get them on the dance floor, something Pynchon has in spades - in abstentia, of course!

Mystique aside and now considering merit, booksellers would do well to keep in mind that Pynchon appears on most short lists of future Nobel Prize nominees. Few of his contemporaries are held in such high regard. At 73, with 8 books in the can, his body of work is now "qualifyingly" substantial; the time is ripe - utterly - to honor an extraordinary career. A word to the wise bookseller is sufficient.

Such is Pynchon's complexity/density/insert-any-synonym-for-difficulty that his books have spawned numerous resources whose purpose it is to aid the reader, illuminating allusion, annotating naval slang, and so on, but there is so much to be had with nothing more than what the reader brings to his books that collectors at many levels are held fast. The former tells us that his appeal is enduring (for academia has little patience with that which isn't) - good news for booksellers who aren't inclined to keep up with Lindsay Lohan's whereabouts; the latter tells us that his appeal is broad.

Pynchon's output includes much non-fiction as well - more opportunities for booksellers - primarily in the form of articles in a wide array of publications but also including many blurbs for both novels and non-fiction books, some of which are now out of print and difficult to run down. Add to this numerous foreign editions/translations, not to mention piracies, and it's clear that there is no shortage of things to look for and profit from.

To date the only published Pynchon bibliography is Clifford Mead's Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary . Published in 1989, this takes us to Slow Learner (1984), but, given its exhaustive scholarship, another resource doesn't need to supplant it so much as update it.

Before moving on to a comprehensive marketing analysis, I think it would be useful to dispense with two things pronto.

1. Booksellers are unlikely to encounter, on a weekly basis, first editions of V., The Crying of Lot 49 or even Pynchon's magnum opus, NBA winner and Pulitzer Prize "almost-winner," Gravity's Rainbow (with a much larger initial print run). For one thing, these books are over 30 to 40+ years out of the blocks. For another, many copies have settled onto collector's shelves to stay - often until death do us part. (Did I mention that Pynchon fans are intensely loyal?) This isn't to say that you won't ever come across copies in the wild, but perhaps most of your acquisition opportunities will arise from "wholesale" sources - auctions, resellers, etc., from whom you can purchase copies and resell for profit because you know more or the seller is highly motivated. Or both. Exception: Viking simultaneously issued Gravity's Rainbow in hardback and trade paperback formats. The paperback is more commonly encountered.

2. Seen any signed Pynchon's on eBay recently? Unless accompanied by ironclad provenance, the overwhelming odds are that they're forgeries. Few authentic examples come on the market, and, when they do, expect them to be presentation copies inscribed to known family members, friends or associates - or to be connected to a documented event. Example: Pynchon is known to have signed books for charity auctions to benefit his son's school.

Another point - and this is perhaps the most important thing to take away from this discussion: the GWTW effect, for which Pynchon is distinctly in play. Most booksellers will recognize "GWTW" as an acronym for Gone with the Wind, a book so large in life that something that ordinarily satisfies the collector's appetite - a first edition, say - can't even begin to hold all the interest that's out there. Many GWTW collectors, consequently, are completists to one degree or another or are content to purchase place holders for the time being and will pay semi-serious money for early printings, not to mention book club editions, variants and ephemera. Knowledge of other books or authors the GWTW effect applies to is one of the more valuable things booksellers can acquire; these are the books that will present the most consistent opportunities for profit year in and year out, and in no small part because many other booksellers aren't aware of their value.


Pynchon's literary career spans the late modern to hypermodern eras, so the fussy approach of focusing on the very best copies you can locate, insisting on dust jackets, taking exceptional care in presenting them visually to potential buyers, detailing issue points, etc., is once again called for, relaxing the F/F standard only on early titles - V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973) - and, only in a pinch, pushing the occasional jacketless copy of one of these through.

All 8 Pynchon firsts are WBW (about $30 and up). Look for mid to high 3-figure outcomes for firsts of V. and Gravity's Rainbow, perhaps 4 figures for exceptional copies, and low 3-figure outcomes for The Crying of Lot 49. Trade softcover firsts of Gravity's Rainbow - about $50. Slow Learner, a collection of short stories also simultaneously issued in hardcover and trade softcover formats, will usually struggle to reach 3 figures in hardcover. The softcover, though less common, will likely struggle at half that. Though published 7 years apart, Vineland, widely regarded as his least successful book, and the later Mason & Dixon will both rise to about $50 in today's markeplace, the more recent Against the Day and Inherent Vice to $20 or $30. Expect all of these prices to head north as we move into better economic times, and despite large numbers of Pynchon's later books in the field, a Nobel nomination or death will spike values of everything. Meanwhile, if his more recent books can be snagged for a buck or two at sales, it would be prudent to start a pile.

Pynchon opportunities:

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1963. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. No printing statement on title page verso. Later printings so stated. (Note that Lippincott deviated from its usual practice of stating "First Edition" to accommodate a V-shaped justification of text on the copyright page.) Dust jacket price: $5.95. First issue dust jacket with chapter headings and no reviews on back panel. Reviews added on second issue dust jacket. 1963 National Book Award nominee. 1963 William Faulkner Foundation award for best debut novel of the year.

2. The Crying of Lot 49

1966. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. "First Edition" stated on title page verso. Later printings so stated. First issue dust jacket with "366" (publication date) at top of front flap and $5.95 price at bottom. "366" dropped from second issue dust jacket.

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