On Pretentiousness

pretentious

After reading Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, I was both shocked and disappointed to learn that many Goodreads users found the book to be utterly and unforgivably pretentious. What follows is a brief harangue directed against that dreaded p-word, with which I prefaced my own review of Auster’s mind-bending novel.

I can’t help but notice how often the word “pretentious” has been thrown around in the reviews for this book. What a bothersome word: pretentious. It’s a lot like the word “boring,” in that they both seem to fool the user into thinking that they mean something objective, when in fact they’re highly subjective. For nothing is inherently boring, just as nothing is inherently pretentious. On the contrary, these words say a lot more about the speaker than they do about the thing they’re supposedly describing.

What does it mean, then, when someone calls a book “pretentious”? Let’s dissect it. What they really seem to be saying is this: “I didn’t find meaning in this book, therefore anyone who claims to have found meaning is not telling the truth.” And this boils down to the following syllogism: “I am an intelligent reader; therefore, anyone who is also an intelligent reader will share my opinion of this book; therefore, anyone who doesn’t share my opinion isn’t an intelligent reader.” A valid inference, no doubt, but hardly sound. This is because the entire argument hinges upon one unavoidable fact: that by using the word “pretentious,” one is implicitly assuming that they themselves are intelligent. And as Socrates demonstrated time and time again, only dumb people think that they’re smart.

So hate on Paul Auster all you want. Say that you found his plots to be shallow. Say that you found his characters to be unsympathetic. Say whatever the **** you want. But don’t call his writing or his fans “pretentious.” Because that’s just being lazy. And beyond that, it only makes you sound pretentious.

One comment

  1. I largely agree, and I think it’s an interesting observation, but it has problems.

    Your argument builds on the premise that the author is always smarter than the person finding the text pretentious, and therefore the person who screamed ‘pretentious’ can never be right. If the claim that a piece is pretentious always points the finger back at yourself, can you then never call a piece pretentious and have a point? In the same way that it’s a cheap trick to say “I didn’t find meaning in this book, therefore anyone who claims to have found meaning is not telling the truth”, isn’t it just as cheap to say “You just didn’t find meaning in this book, cause you didn’t understand it, and therefore you can never have a valid negative opinion of it”?

    Well, I guess what it all really comes down to, is that whatever claims you make about a piece, you should always make your argument for that opinion clear. Otherwise it’s just hot air anyway.

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