0. Full of Pretence or Pretension
Over on OF Blog of the Fallen, Larry had a post a while back about pretentiousness in reviewing. I haven't been hanging about on the forums where, as he sees it, the word is being bandied about more and more these days, but it's the sort of trigger-word that sets off a fuck-load of the teacup tempests we see in genre. So I thought I'd dive into the topic and see what I could come up with. As ever, I think the slapfests have as much to do with miscommunication as anything, "pretentious" meaning different things to different people -- a damning affectation for some, a daring ambition for others. So... let's try and unpeel some of the layers of potential meaning between the two. As a starting point, we'll grab some hacked-back definitions from Dictionary.com:
Here's one set...
1. full of pretence or pretension.
2. characterized by assumption of dignity or importance.
3. making an exaggerated outward show; ostentatious.
1. Claiming or demanding a position of distinction or merit, especially when unjustified.
2. Making or marked by an extravagant outward show; ostentatious.
1. making claim to or creating an appearance of (often undeserved) importance or distinction;
2. intended to attract notice and impress others;
3. (of a display) tawdry or vulgar [syn: ostentatious]
Now, with a bit of splicing and dicing, I think we can organise this into something more systematic. Here, then, is a generalised definition, picking out the key points and battering them together into a coherent shape:
pretentious = full of pretence or pretension:
1. making an outward show/ appearance
1.1. intended to attract notice and impress others
1.2. exaggerated / extravagant
1.3. ostentatious / tawdry / vulgar
2. characterized by assumption / claiming / demanding a position
2.1. of distinction / merit / importance / dignity
2.1.1. [especially] when unjustified.
So, the way I see it, we have two main points in an accusation of pretentiousness, the first having three constituent factors, the second having two. To try and draw these out by rewording them, here's what I think the charge sheet boils down to:
1.1. dubious motivation: seeking attention and acclaim
1.2. false presentation: generating an inflated sense of import
1.3. improper effect: becoming offensive
2.1. asserting inequitable relationship: X privileged over Y
2.1.1. [potentially] unjust evaluation (See 1.2.)
OK, now let's explore these points in a little more depth.
All text is artificed. All text is an outward show, an appearance, an articulation presented for public consumption. So artifice is not, in itself, a criticism. Rather this point is dependent on the constituent factors:
1.1. Dubious Motivation: Seeking Attention and Acclaim
This sort of projection of intent is, in itself, of (a) dubious motivation, (b) questionable veracity and (c) debatable relevance. All professional writing involves an investment of ego in the work and a desire for that work to be read and appreciated. So, taking these points in reverse order:
In terms of relevance (c), does it actually matter how deeply those are allied in the writer's psyche, how much the work is an attempt to gain validation by presenting something of interest to others and saying, look at what I made, if in doing so the writer makes something of interest to others? Interest is value; if interest has been generated by a work it is not devalued by the writer's original motive.
In terms of veracity (b), how can we actually judge that motive with any certainty when the only evidence is a text that forcefully presents itself as of interest to others? If the text is strongly performative, seeking to be widely noticed and to impress others deeply, this does not alone provide any basis for an assumption that this is not simply an end in and of itself, that the writer is instead seeking to capitalise on this personally for sheer ego. Without further evidence this assumption is entirely spurious.
And in terms of motivation (a), where such a spurious assumption is made, why should we not turn it around and question the antagonistic purposes of the questioner, whether the accusation is driven by objective evaluation or subjective prejudice? From an opposing perspective any accusation of pretentiousness can be seen as an entirely baseless slur on a writer, and one which seeks to turn the level of artistic ambition of a work into a marker of its inverse -- a lack of artistic ambition. When an allegation treats the very ambitiousness of the work itself as evidence not of a writer's ambition for that work but rather as evidence of their personal ambitions -- their shallow desire for attention -- that allegation can be disregarded as conspiracy theory rather than valid critique.
All of this is actually meta-argument, a criticism of the (imagined) producer and (imagined) process of production rather than the product, the source rather than the substance. This baselessness is, of course, one of the main reasons that the charge is so incendiary. To call a work pretentious is to call into question its writer very commitment to their craft, to suggest, with no real evidence, that they are driven, at heart, by a shallow egotism.
For those who see pretentiousness in a work, however, there is evidence in the text itself, in the form of inflated import, which brings us to the next point:
1.2. False Presentation: Generating an Inflated Sense of Import
An allegation of false presentation is arguable -- as subjective opinion or objective fact depending on your view of critique. A writer or another reader may challenge it, but as a judgement of a mismatch between superficial and structural qualities of a text it is as valid as any such evaluation. Where the high register of a text is not matched by a high degree of relevance, a text can be criticised as presenting a false impression, inflating its own import.
The underlying theme of any work, fiction or non-fiction, may be entirely trivial, and the sentiment ultimately articulated in the work as regards that theme may be banal, trite and obvious, but there is a plethora of literary techniques which may be used -- so the argument goes -- to obscure such banality. The most notable (and most often noted) techniques are structural, syntactic and semantic complexity and obscurity. An unconventional compositional approach in argument/narrative, an intricacy of grammar at the prose level, and an erudite ease with a more exotic lexicon may combine to weave a tapestry of glimmering and grandiose verbiage around a shallow and insubstantial idea, leading the unwitting reader to credit the work with more meaning than it actually has. In essence, the work evokes a strong affective response of significance-as-import which is incommensurate with the actual relevance of significance-as-content.
Less commonly acknowledged but equally open to critique is the use of over-emphasis to create an artificially-heightened sense of import in the form of drama. A marked feature in pulp narrative and tabloid reportage, this inflated sense of import can be generated by the various rhetorical, poetic and dramatic techniques we label sensationalism and melodrama -- ponderous pauses, ominous utterances, over-wrought expressiveness. This would, however, generally be considered portentousness rather than pretentiousness, such techniques often going hand-in-hand with a rejection of the type of linguistic complexity and obscurity detailed above.
On this level, however, the charge of pretentiousness is open to a number of challenges.
First, it requires us to assume that the critic is perceptive enough not to have missed those subtleties which raise a work out of banality; the apparent superficiality may be a quality of the critique rather than the text itself and to that extent a more insightful critique may repudiate the charge.
Second, the intent of the writer may be precisely to challenge, through the work, a perception of triviality or banality as regards a certain subject, to articulate a notion that would generally be disregarded as obvious and trite but in which the writer perceives profoundly significant ramifications.
Third, complexity and obscurity are entirely relative, so the perception of them being excessive might well be a product of a reader's abnormally low linguistic fluency rather than a writer's abnormally high linguistic fluency; if an accusation of "style over content" is founded in a perception of "difficulty" this raises the pointed question of whether the reader's failure to find anything but the banal and trivial in a text is actually a failure to fully comprehend the "difficult" text.
Fourth, the very notion of an excess of linguistic complexity disguising a relative dearth of meaning, the idea of "style over content". assumes that the primary (if not sole) purpose of the sentences that compose a work is to "carry" meaning in the form of plot or theme. In fact, sentences are the substance of writing, while plot and theme are merely schematic glosses projected upon the work by the reader. The disparity underlying a sense of inflated import should not therefore be considered a lack of substance but rather a structural failure, a failure to provide a sufficiently rich and realised schematic framework in terms of plot or theme. Again, we may question how far this is actually a failure to reconstruct that framework on the reader's part.
Finally, any reader who derides pretentiousness in one text while excusing portentousness in another is revealing a bias in their judgement that casts doubt upon their objectivity in general; if a reader accepts inflated import in a text as long as it is delivered via a linear plot, a simple grammar and a straightforward lexicon, in the form of sensationalism and melodrama, their accusation of pretentiousness may be more an assertion of their own preferences and prejudices than an accurate evaluation of the work.
However, as much as an ambitious writer might prefer to dismiss a charge of pretentiousness as simply a matter of the reader's inadequacies, these challenges are no more valid as assumptions than the charge they counter. That said, if the debate can be pushed beyond these assumptions, what these challenges do provide is a reformulation of the argument into specific terms: thematic depth versus superficiality; triviality versus significance of subject; the richness and realisation of the structural framework versus the lack thereof; the superfluity or necessity of textual complexity and/or obscurity in the articulation of that framework. The first two points are clearly pertinent in any critique, the very stuff of it to some extent, but it is the latter two that seem to be the bone of contention in most cases.
The problem is one of conflicting aesthetics: one in which the projected schematics of plot and/or theme is the essential end (writing as entertainment and/or commentary, designed ultimately to incite sentimental and/or intellectual rapture), and the substance of the writing itself, the sentences, only the means to that end; another in which the writing is an end in itself (writing as an intrinsically enjoyable medium, appreciated for its direct linguistic effects). The charge of pretentiousness thus becomes the locus of a struggle over the very purpose of writing. For those allied to the latter aesthetic the charge galls because it is not only refuses to recognise their approach as valid but refuses to recognise it as an approach. Which is to say, not only is that projected schematics considered essential; a sincere commitment to the sentences, the substance, in place of it is misrepresented as artificial, a false presentation of dubious motivation -- a shallow and deceitful performance.
This is where the next point becomes important, in the judgement that this surfeit of superficial and self-important articulation is ultimately vulgar:
1.3. Improper Effect: Becoming Offensive
This aspect of the charge is double-sided, expressing a judgement of ostentatious vulgarity that could be moral or aesthetic (or both) depending on the reader.
As a moral charge, the accusation may be challenged as any moral imperative, as a socially constructed imposition, albeit tacit, with little rational foundation. Since the vulgarity of the text or writer accused of pretentiousness is in direct proportion to the "difficulty", the accusation functions as an expression of anti-intellectualism. Complexity and obscurity, in this prescriptivist and essentialist view, are regarded as intrinsically bad, to be avoided as much as possible. The more rudimentary grammar and lexicon remain, the more "accessible" the text, the better. With elegance and erudition set in opposition to economy and efficiency, any deviation from everyday language, transparent prose and straight-line narrative is considered a breach of Grice's Maxim not just because it is harder to make sense of but because it is read as wilfully so.
In the moral charge of pretentiousness-as-vulgarity the suggestion is that the true purpose of sophisticated articulation is precisely to exclude the unsophisticated, closing the text off to all but a "literary elite". It is hard to say whether the arrogance or resentment is more obnoxious here, in the assumption that articulacy is designed to demean the inarticulate. The more pressing problem however is that ultimately the injunction against this straw man of "elitism" serves to censure the most articulate on the very basis of their articulacy, disallowing intricacy and erudition in what is fundamentally the crass populism of the philistine, morally validating idiocy and ignorance.
If it is invalid to condemn others on the basis that being too smart is rude, however, it is, of course, entirely valid to take a populist approach as an ethical stricture applied to one's own work (as an attempt to compensate for some of the class privileges that can lead to disparities of articulacy, to be deliberately inclusive rather than -- unconsciously and by default -- exclusive). Further, it's entirely valid to advocate for such an approach as a practical necessity for any writer with a social conscience who actually wishes to have an impact (c.f. Scott Bakker on not "preaching to the choir"). And when it comes down to it, the charge of gaucheness may be an aesthetic rather than moral judgement, and founded on a fairly accurate assessment of bad craft -- that a grandiose register is not just gratuitous, but is in fact counter-productive, harmful to the work.
The charge of gaucheness can, of course, be dismissed as missing the point in fiction where this is a crucial feature of the narrative voice, where the elevated register is an intentional technique for representing character. Where the register of the narrative is a purely authorial mannerism, or in non-fiction written outside the refined and specialised fields of academia and therefore freed of the strictures of formal discourse, the suitability of such an elevated register may be more validly questioned.
Effectively, whatever the intent, the register and tone of a work creates a sense of voice, and where that voice is aloof it may read as supercilious, where it is refined it may read as rarefied, and where it is poetic it may read as pompous. This is the accusation of arrogance encoded in a charge of pretentiousness, that the register and tone articulates an implicit assumption of, or demand for, due respect. It is not simply that a constructed narrator is making this demand; rather the author themself is staking their claim to intellectual status. In fiction or non-fiction, especially in the field of the commercially-driven genres, that sort of manner may seem deeply inappropriate to many.
Which brings us to the next aspect of the charge, the heart of it all.
In digging through the strata of accusations focused on artifice -- dubious motivation, false presentation, ostentatiousness -- it should have become clear that the underlying suspicion being voiced is that the writer's "artifice" is covering a shallow concern with status, that the primary purpose of the work is to establish the writer's superiority.
Just as all writing is artifice, it must be said, all writing is arrogance, every work staking a claim of its own worth, the writer proudly assuming that their words actually deserve to be read. There is a certain foolish level of pride involved in presenting a pretty patchwork of sentences to the public on the basis that they might actually like it. The reality is, however, that this assumption is often mitigated by utter dread and self-doubt and more a form of quixotic insanity than conceit. Either way this arrogance is so integral to the craft of writing it makes little sense as a criticism of an individual writer or work.
2.1. Asserting Inequitable Relationship: X Privileged Over Y
The essential aspect of this arrogance that renders it problematic is that it stakes a claim to relative status -- that is to say, that the writer or work is presented as being of special merit, distinct and superior, in comparison with other lesser writers or works. The offence of this conceit is that it rests on a devaluation of peers and their products.
The charge is absurd as it stands. Literature is a constant discourse of parody and pastiche, mutual admiration and contempt. Writers work in reaction to each other; they copy and counter each other's approaches; they tear each other's works apart to try and understand how it works or how it fails to work; and they do all this so that they can then try to do better. Reviewing and critique, indeed, exist for the specific purpose of analysing works in terms of their approaches and the resultant effects -- evaluating merit, measuring distinction, judging success and failure. It would be wonderfully egalitarian if we could all approach each writer and work on their own basis, as a unique and precious snowflake, setting their own standards and measurable against no other. However, as much as the differing aesthetics applied in literature require us to understand that in comparing any two books we are ultimately comparing apples and oranges, this does not change the fact that there are fresh and rotten apples, juicy and rancid oranges. If bad writing is more noticeable relative to good writing, if the good garners respect while the bad is reviled, this is not a terrible injustice.
But, of course, this is not the point of the charge, cannot be if pretentiousness is seen as a failure in writing, a marker of low quality and a reason to criticise a writer or work. If the problem is that the position of respect this writer or that work seems to be laying a claim to would require us to -- in a terrible act of elitist privileging -- judge other works as being of lower quality, it would be somewhat inconsistent to, on that basis, judge a writer or their work as of lower quality.
The charge only actually makes sense if there is an additional factor...
2.1.1. [Potentially] Unjust Evaluation
In truth, there is no "potentially" about it. If the evaluation is not unjust, if the writer or work is actually worthy of the respect they appear to be laying claim to in their elevated register and tone, then their arrogance is not pretension; it is simply arrogance, no more, no less. It does not matter that lesser works appear lesser in comparison; they deserve to. It does not matter that the writer or work lacks modesty if that modesty would be false. Their shameless strutting may be alienating but if it is matched by a comparable success it is not pretentiousness. At worst it is bad form. At best it is ambition, it is the achievement of that ambition, and it is the passionate refusal to demean that achievement by undervaluing it.
If the evaluation is not unjust, in fact, all other arguments collapse. The writer's motivation is beside the point if it results in a work that genuinely deserves the desired esteem. There is no false presentation, no inflated sense of import, if the work presented is truly important. For a work to be successful it is a rather basic requirement that the voice is apt, so where that respect is appropriate it surely follows that the voice is not actually improper. These are tautologies.
Those square brackets, however, enclose the miniscule point of uncertainty on which the whole argument really hinges. In admitting that small sense of doubt, we admit two opposite and equally problematic views of pretentiousness.
In one, we allow for a judgement of pretentiousness to be made regardless of the actual quality of the work. In essence, the question of quality is disregarded as entirely subjective and the condemnation is made on the basis of the very artificing that is essential to that quality. It does not matter that others find the value of interest in the "difficult" work, that the result of complexity and obscurity may be, for some readers, greater depth; the structural, syntactic and semantic unconventionality is pretension in and of itself when set against standards of economy and efficiency, simplicity and accessibility. It is the hubris of the intellectual artist, the prideful folly of the non-conformist, condemnable for its breach of those standards regardless of the results.
In the opposing view, this is directly challenged with an attempt to reclaim the term pretentious, to accept it as a marker of one's defiance of those conventional standards. Done partly tongue-in-cheek, partly sincerely, this is actually a shifting of the meaning of the term. It disregards the aspect of affectation and attention-seeking, the accusation that the writer is really just seeking an elevated social status and the shallow validation of their ego that goes with it. In focusing on the conflict between notions of difficulty and accessibility it becomes, at heart, an assertion of the right to try and the right to fail, with a certain level of self-deprecation, a wry recognition that failure probably means one's ambition will be seen as affectation.
For all that this defiance is only a logical response to the conventionalist view it sets itself against, the shift of meaning makes this view just as problematic. One person's profundity becomes another's pretension. One person's pretension becomes another's ambition. The arguments that result will inevitably be at cross purposes and on shifting ground, the crucial question of whether a work succeeds or fails sidelined by specious arguments over motives and manifestos, complexity and conventionality.
Ultimately, the term becomes of dubious value when it serves largely as a truncheon or a banner, its meaning smeared, its utility squandered in ideological bluster. Maybe it's time we started cutting through this bluster to the underlying accusations of artifice and arrogance, and dealing with these on the level of the specifics. We might be able to strip away the irrelevant meta-arguments over attention and acclaim, ditch the tedious obsessions with relative status, just or unjust, and bring our focus onto the textual realities at the heart of the whole notion of inflated import: the structural, syntactic and semantic complexity and obscurity. The question of "difficulty" versus "accessibility" may be another can of worms in its own right (and a tiresome one at that), but it is at least about the actual words written on the page.
As a parting gift, anyway, here's a little musical and televisual "pretentiousness" as illustration, in the form of Daisy Chainsaw and an interview with their singer, Katie Jane Garside, by Paul Morley. Personally, I think it's kinda neat in a totally messed-up sorta way...