The errors of popular criticism, part 2: The nature of the pretentious

Movements work better if they have enemies, and these enemies are often esoteric inventions designed to suit the movements’ needs. Tropish criticism is an aesthetic movement, and I’ve already mentioned that its enemy is a shadowy confabulation that resists being tied down to specific examples. Specific examples often belie the stereotypes of tropish criticism. This means that, in the interest of self-preservation, tropish criticism must isolate itself from the intellectual world, appropriating only useful bits of it without fully understanding them.

Here is a table:

Literary fiction:

  • Boring and academic
  • Overly concerned with symbolism
  • Only succeeds due to government and academic welfare
  • Exists to show off how intelligent the author is
  • Associated with hard-left politics
Genre fiction:

  • Fun and commercial
  • Means nothing but itself
  • Commercially viable because people actually enjoy it
  • Exists solely to entertain
  • Apolitical

(I apologize for the fact that the table is hard to read; unfortunately my WordPress theme removes borders from tables and it’s too much trouble to put them back with inline CSS.)

This table is a brain-dump of my eighteen-year-old self. I was bookish but stupid, interested in the arts but almost completely ignorant of theory and criticism. I had only just started seriously engaging with music older than my parents. Aside from high school Shakespeare, the most literary thing I had read was Ordinary People by Judith Guest, which shocked me with its present tense and italicized inner monologues.

I had read about (but not read) Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author,” and like all good tropers I thought it was both ridiculous and central to all literary criticism. In fact, I had read about but not read rather a lot, including canonical philosophy, science textbooks, religious texts, and classical literature. This made me feel like an expert despite knowing practically nothing.

When I arrived at the University of Manitoba, I had a chip on my shoulder about the “pretentious.” This was a catch-all term for literary fiction, avant garde art, criticism that was more concerned with finding obscure symbolism in novels to prove the critic’s intelligence than with its proper business: rating things as better or worse.

Because of my inexperience, if you asked me to name specific examples of pretentious things or people I couldn’t have. I would probably mention Roland Barthes (who I had not read), the Social Text hoax (which concerned people I had not read and would not have understood), and perhaps John Cage and 4’33”. My beliefs lasted as long as they did because no one asked; people who are mainly interested in debunking postmodernists in a belligerent and ill-informed manner seldom get the opportunity to talk about their interests with friends.

I drew too many conclusions from second-hand information, and I was not experienced enough to know that my beliefs did not stand up to scrutiny. Of course I know now, which is why I’m making an example of myself in this quasi-confessional series. So to ease my own embarrassment, let’s pick apart these beliefs about the nature of the “pretentious” in detail.

Much of the belief structure contained in the term “pretentious” depends on the character of the pretentious academic or pretentious artist. This character does not exist. Yet I can easily picture an example: clad in black and perhaps a beret, sitting in a cafe, smoking a cigarette and expounding on Nietzsche, Foucault, and other foreigners. I believed in this stereotype because I read about it almost daily, but that was at sites like Less Wrong where pretentious academics and artists are bugaboos meant to scare you away from traditional centres of knowledge, where you might be led to question the Singularity or the bizarro brand of utilitarianism.

When I came to the U of M, I expected to see pretentious academics everywhere. I didn’t, because they don’t exist, but my expectations led to some encounters I now regret. My professors were never pretentious so much as single-minded. To the extent that they were ignorant of or indifferent to popular culture or genre fiction, it was because they had dedicated their lives to the study of eighteenth century opera or enharmonicism and had no time to think about anything else, not because they thought they were better than me.

I registered a few pretentious false-positives among students: one guy wore a different beret to school every day. He now plays bass in a space-rock band. Another wore black, smoked, and occasionally made reference to Nietzsche. He ended up being one of the few people I could talk to about anything serious without tearing my hair out. But my fellow university students were much like my fellow high school students in that the vast majority of them weren’t interested in anything at all. The few who did register as actual human beings were such a welcome relief from the monotony of bovine ignorance that any number of foibles could be forgiven. For the most part university students are not burdened by an excessive interest in intellectual matters.

If the word “pretentious” in its special sense has any real content, the pretentious academic or artist cannot be part of that content as he does not exist. Perhaps the pretentious could refer to the academy’s attitude of superiority toward popular culture?

A lot of people seem to have experienced a formative moment in school where they were forbidden from reading the genre fiction they liked or derided for doing so. I never had any experience like this, and yet I was convinced that the English literature establishment was strongly opposed to science fiction and fantasy. In my first year at university I was required to take a course to fill my written English requirement. The default course for direct entry students (music, engineering, nursing, agriculture) was Topics in English Literature, Topic TBA. The section I signed up for turned out to be “Horror in Literature.” We read Dracula, Frankenstein, several short stories, and a book by the thrice-accursed Kelley Armstrong.

But I was more interested in sticking it to the pretentious literary critics than I was in answering the questions on the essay tests, so after doing poorly on the first one I dropped the course (getting less than an A in anything would have jeopardized my scholarships). The course did everything I wanted university courses to do, but my beliefs were so entrenched that I couldn’t accept what was happening before my eyes.

The fact is that the canon is now thoroughly busted. The trendy academic position is that genre fiction and pop culture are unfairly marginalized and need to be studied in the name of equality. On my bookshelf I have decades-old critical works on Clarke, Tiptree, Tolkien, Asimov, Silverberg, and several others. You can take a creative writing MFA that focuses on genre fiction. In reading critical works of recent (or even not-so-recent) provenance, it’s striking how often they take a cosmopolitan view of literature. The author will usually concede that science fiction (for example) is of critical interest, even if not to him.

There are quarters of the academy where genre fiction and popular culture are still not accepted, but there are quarters of the academy where people believe just about every ridiculous thing. And anyway, the hard truth is that if you consider yourself primarily a reader of science fiction or fantasy or some other genre, exposure to the classics or anything outside your normal reading habits can only be good for you.

So much for pretentiousness being about the exclusion of genre fiction. What is usually seen as an effort to prevent students from reading vulgar crap is better described as an effort to get them to read something outside their ordinary frame of reference. Could pretentiousness then reside in the area of literary criticism, where bearded chain-smokers with comedy accents read subtext where it just doesn’t belong?

I hope it’s obvious that it’s silly to expect academic literary scholars to spend most of their time deciding which books are better than which other ones. What distressed my teenaged self was the frequent suggestion that nothing is better than anything else, a suggestion that seemed to me to come equally from pretentious academics and know-nothings on message boards.

Luckily, you’ll find that most people who can be taken seriously admit that some works are superior to others—they just regard it as a trivial truth not worth belabouring. And they are able to discuss and examine something they dislike without mentioning their dislike of it, which I now regard as one of the most important skills a writer—or anyone—can have. Even many of the people who say things like “it’s all subjective” don’t really mean it—what they actually mean is that even shit has redeeming features, you may find that you were wrong about something you used to hate, and wouldn’t it be nice if we were all a little kinder to each other.

As for obscure symbolism, one of the things I was surprised to learn upon actually reading some literary criticism is that most of it is not concerned with straightforwardly assigning an allegorical role to each character in the story and arguing that this secret allegory is what the novel is really about. The idea now seems bizarre, though it didn’t at the time; I blame the fact that high school English is usually taught by cretins who have never read a book uncoerced.

Another mental block I used to have vis a vis literary criticism was religion: as a die-hard atheist, the mere suggestion of religious overtones was enough to turn me off something, and it upset me when someone had the temerity to suggest that religious imagery was relevant to some book I liked. I suspect that many are in the opposite situation: any reading that involves elements contrary to or incompatible with their religious beliefs is unacceptable.

Those who reject literary criticism, whether for failing to rank works of literature in a pseudoscientific way or for inserting symbolism into works of literature that won’t accept it, are all too often simply ignorant of the field. Like my eighteen-year-old self, they discount it for the way it makes them feel, not as a result of any serious evaluation of the facts. So the complaint of pretension will not stick to literary criticism either.

There is still a widespread belief that goes something like this: genre fiction is popular and entertaining, while literary fiction is deliberately obscure so that pseudointellectuals can pretend to understand it in order to seem smart. This issue could probably be a whole essay in itself, so I will content myself with stating that (1) people do actually enjoy literary fiction, (2) there is a bigger audience for certain kinds of lit fic than you’d think, (3) certain segments of genre are more boring and marginal than their proponents would have you believe, and (4) fiction can still be valuable without being entertaining.

I hope that relating some of my personal experiences helps to dissolve the notion of the “pretentious.” When used in the nonstandard but common way I’ve been using it, it’s quite simply a contentless word. Since the new meaning has almost supplanted the original meaning, it’s probably best that we all stop using the word entirely. We’ve already established that many key tenets of tropish aesthetics evaporate when the “pretentious” enemy is taken away. Now that the enemy has indeed been taken away, we’re left with a void. What can we fill it with?

In part three I will give an example of a story I believe to be an effective, if not great, short story, and contrast it with a series of novels by a popular author widely considered to be unpretentious and on the side of tropishness.