Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On Pretentiousness in Literature

See I've done two pretentious things before I've even started: I began the title of a post with 'On', and I called it "Literature". Pretentiousness is difficult to talk about.

What I want to do in this post is defend "pretentious" literature, or at least object to some of the judgments made against it. I'm going to start by splitting books into three rough categories (should win me some friends, right?)

Let's start with Twilight readers. People who read Twilight on the bus presumably don't care what anyone thinks about their knowledge of literature. Who judges Twilight readers? Well, anybody who considers themselves a book-lover or a writing enthusiast probably looks at the kid reading Meyers and thinks "God, that's a shit book". At best. At worst we think, "God, that kid is an idiot". Also in here is Dan Brown and Mills and Boon stuff.

Nobody is reading this to look smart
Now lets consider the guy in skinny jeans taking his Animal Collective-ticket-bookmark out of Infinite Jest as he parks his fixie. There is certainly a very good chance that this kid cares about what people think. He wants our judgment, we think. He wants us to to notice, we think, as he lays his Salinger (Franny and Zooey, not Catcher, obviously), title-up next to his sunglasses.

We're judging him to be a liar. A pretender. We accuse the person who proclaims to love Ulysses, or DeLillo, or Cormac McCarthy's early work: we accuse them of pretending to like it in order to look smart. Difficult books with florid prose, postmodern aspects, and philosophical themes or discussions at the expense of plot and character development are often lauded by critics as the greatest literary works, and reading them will get you a lot of kudos if you are seen as sincere, and a lot of sneers if you are judged to be pretending.

Then there are a whole load of authors somewhere in the middle - usually genre guys with slightly literary aspects (Stephen King, Philip K Dick, Iain M Banks) or guys of unusual popularity or strong political messages (Douglas Adams, JRR Tolkien, George Orwell). Most books with strong plots and lucid, well-paced prose fall in here somewhere. A lot of people who love books in this category accuse people who love literary-philosophical books of pretentiousness while simultaneously themselves having a snobbish attitude toward Tom Clancy or Cecelia Ahern. (When I have this discussion with friends in a bar, this is usually the part at which they all look like they want to stab me in the eye with a blunt pencil)

My point is, nearly everyone looks down on someone, but looking down on someone is not as bad as looking up at someone and judging the sincerity of their ambition. Yes, a lot of people who are reading Infinite Jest or House of Leaves might be doing it just to look smart, but you can't always tell the difference between those people and the people who are reading it because they love to be challenged by a book. It's at least as bad to accuse someone who reads a difficult book of pretension as it is to accuse somebody reading a dumb book of stupidity.

I like to think Kurt would see my point here.
This tension makes it very difficult to have reasoned, calm debates about fiction. In an imaginary book club, if somebody says "I really love John Grisham", I can quite safely turn around and say "Actually, I find his treatment of morality rather shallow compared to Kurt Vonnegut." This will get nods of agreement from most people. But replace Grisham with Vonnegut, and say, "Actually, I find Vonnegut's treatment of morality rather shallow compared to Cormac McCarthy", and there will be blood. Blood and tears.

In part, reviewers are to blame. No reviewer wants to be accused of 'not getting' a difficult book. If in doubt, if the book looks philosophical and has loads of big words, reviewers will often give it a good review even if they didn't enjoy reading it, just in case. So a lot of 'literary' dross gets rave reviews. But there are still people out there, people with good motives, trying to write poetic, philosophical and challenging books.

My argument is simply that we shouldn't be so quick to accuse literary writers and readers of insincerity. We don't do it in other academic fields - people don't accuse number theorists or biochemists of being deliberately obtuse to further their smart-cred. We admire their ambition. Let's cut the literary crowd a bit more slack - assume the best instead of the worst.

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