Posted by: dougery | January 25, 2011

Creative v Pretentious

One of the downsides of living in age of books were the professional literary critic is for all intents and purposes extinct is that we aren’t very encouraging of our more playful and intelligent young writers, particularly those who dabble in (gasp!) style. There is no surer way of being dismissed than by trying acting out, no easier way of being maligned than by using ‘big fancy words,’ and for the love of god don’t even think of using end-notes in your fiction because then I’d need to turn pages more often. For many, Thomas Pynchon can get away with being stylish, sometimes to the point of unreadability (and I say this as the dude’s number one fan) but when David Foster Wallace trots out the polysyllables it is because he is, and here is a random sampling of the ‘1 star’ reviews of Infinite Jest on Goodreads:

“Pretentious, self-conscious, laborious, tragically-hip, gratuitously multiloquent (!?), rambling, pretentious (again), self-indulgent, not profound, pretentious (yet again), unreadable, and my favorite–literary masturbation.”

We’ll get to the pretentious thing in a moment, but some of these other adjectives are a symptom with what’s wrong with readers, not any particular piece of writing.

Laborious: What, so reading can’t be rewarding when it is difficult or unusual?

Rambling: I’m not sure about you but a great many times when my mind is humming along my experience becomes a bit, let’s say, short of concise. And I’m not saying I’m any great shakes in the comprehension department, but I’m about 650 pages into DFW’s best known work and I’ve been able to follow along just fine.

Unreadable: Nope, actually, you’re just not trying very hard.

Self-conscious, self-indulgent, and literary masturbation: Listen folks. Writing is mental masturbation. It is a solo act and something one does (hopefully!) because we find enjoyment out of it. A writer needs to form, borrow, steal or conjure a colossal ego if they ever hope to come to the conclusion that what they have taken the time to put into words is worth other people’s time and money. I’ll tell you what, when a piece of writing isn’t sure of it’s own quality then it is a hack-job, plain and simple. Then it’s existence can be chalked up to making a buck and little else.

And finally pretentious. When an armchair critic calls something pretentious I almost automatically earmark the book for future reading. Why? Because chances are there is some sort of experimentation happening, some bit of unusual, off-the-beaten-Word-document going on and while the author may or may not hit it out of the park at least they are swinging the bat, trying their hand at what Royal Tenenbaum once described as, “scrapping and yelling and mixing it up.” And I’m much more likely to “enjoy every minute of this damn crew” if they are.

But DFW isn’t alone. And Infinite Jest is a beast but relatively straightforward as compared to say, McCarthy’s Remainder or Daniewlewski’s House of Leaves. The Goodreads litmus test for the latter:

“Contrived, gimmiky (sic), pretentious (oh my dear, dear friend), annoying, pretentious, pretentious (back to back!), overblown, self-important (wait, not indulgent?), hip-culture bullshit, masturbatory bullshit (so which is it folks?), incoherent and pretentious (just hook it to my veins).”

I’m not going to pick apart each of these jabs as I did for Infinite Jest but the principle is the same. If something can be seen to be ‘trying’ then it isn’t very good. We want our fiction to be seamless and smooth and ‘real’ and restrained and concise. Never let them see you sweat or ruin the illusion that fiction is work and that hard work is dirty and messy and occasionally overbearing but we do it because in the end it sometimes results in something fabulous. I’m not digging on readers who say “this isn’t for me” or “not my thing.” That’s fine. One man’s house is another man’s leaves. There are more than enough brilliant works of fiction out there for all of us. But to slam a dude because they are somehow, and for lack of a better phrase,¬† threateningly authory? For shame.

Listening to: Cloud Nothings



  1. There’s something deeply disingenuous about accusing an author pretentiousness whilst deploying the coinage “multiloquent.” That’s sort of like punching someone in the face for being violent. Good job, anonymous GoodReads reader!

    • i’m glad that that comment happened. that’s all.

      • You and me both, KommentsOline

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