It’s a word that can stop any concept, or insight, or book, in its tracks: “That’s pretentious.” The declaration is usually accompanied by a disdainful turning of the head or waving of the hand. Pretentious. It’s pretentious—and by extension, so are you.
…Let’s define our terms here. Pretension is about, well, pretense, pretending to like something we don’t to create some sort of affectation.
So if I pretended I didn’t like Kundera or Fassbinder, and instead raved about the Twilight books and Michael Bay, I’d actually be pretending something I don’t feel in order to reach consensus with my peers. But I don’t like Twilight and I don’t get my kicks out of watching the earth blow up. Or seeing Owen and Luke Wilson embarrass themselves. So acting as though I did would in fact be pretending, or displaying pretense…or pretentious.
It depends on the particular example, I suppose, as to whether a writer is being too baroque, or a reader is being too obstinate in refusing to accept something different. It’s true, as I was just saying a few days ago, that academic literature is full of pompous twits who do their best to obfuscate rather than clarify. However, the authenticity police need a sharp poke in the eye as well, for their Holden Caulfield-like obsession with accusing people of phoniness if their writing aspires to be more than colloquial. I was thinking about that recently, after seeing someone called a pretentious poser for writing a word like “oeuvre”. Right, because anyone whose vocabulary has grown since high school is a fauxhemian snob who THINKS THEY’RE BETTER THAN YOU. I’d expect to hear that sort of embarrassingly insecure, anti-intellectual resentment from your average provincial Palinite, but it really seems to be a universal complaint. The barstool, the office chair, the season ticket-holder’s stadium cushion, and the living room recliner — any word that isn’t commonly heard within these boundaries of the everyman is apparently evidence of unforgivable conceit.
Does that have a ring, boys? Does it sound for you?It sounds, the boys thought, oh, oh, it sounds…!
I love words. I love the way they ring and sound for me, and the best passages have to be read aloud to be fully appreciated. I love reading dictionaries. That doesn’t make me smart, or even someone who thinks he’s smart — it makes me someone who loves hearing new words. But I also curse like a motherfucking sailor, in everyday conversation as well as here for your reading pleasure, and yet I’ve never been on a boat, either! OH NOES I’M A SLUMMING BOURGEOIS TOO!
I’m focusing on writing here, because that’s the area where my sensibilities regarding artfulness and playfulness clash the hardest with this grim, almost Puritan hatred of anything flowery or extravagant. I enjoy writers who look like they’re having fun, who attempt to at least mildly blur the lines between poetry and prose (I even enjoy the irony that people who do delight in playing with language will invariably be accused of taking themselves too “seriously” by those who seem to walk around with a chip on their shoulder, looking for something to take offense to). If I want utterly unadorned, no-nonsense language, I’ll go read the owner’s manual for a lawnmower