Pretentiousness by Dan Fox

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On the surface, Dan Fox’s new book, Pretentiousness: Why it Matters, seems like a slippery slope of bad behavior: a pretentious book that celebrates pretentiousness. But the provocative title simply gets the reader in the door. Fox’s book is less a defense of pretentiousness and more an examination of class mobility, the determinants of personal taste, and the authenticity of authenticity.

Fox makes a semantic distinction between “pretentious” and “snobbish.” Pretentious is a word we hurl at others; being snobbish is an intentional act. “Snobs are self-aware,” Fox says, “whereas a pretentious individual isn’t necessarily motivated by the opinions of others. A person might do something out of sheer enjoyment or creative fulfillment, unaware or unbothered that others consider them ridiculous and pretentious.”

While a snob can be put on trial, and might readily admit to the accusation, pretentiousness is almost entirely subjective. It’s one person’s preferences against another’s. “Whatever it is you do, I’ll bet you’d never think it pretentious,” Fox says. “That’s because you do it, and pretension never self-identifies. Pretentiousness happens over there.” In other words, we’re all guilty of pretentiousness in someone’s eyes.

Perhaps as a result, the accusation of pretentiousness has come to hold more weight than the accusation of snobbishness. If you call someone a snob you’d better be able to back it up, but writing someone (or something) off as pretentious has become as simple as that single word. “The accuser rarely itemizes what is being aspired to,” Fox says, “and just why it is that the subject in question fails to make the grade.” And the listener rarely asks. We’ve tend to accept the word at face value.

Pretentiousness is, perhaps surprisingly, not a book for those who began refining their tastes from an early age. It will most likely resonate with those who were raised in small towns, in poverty, or among small minds; those whose interests guided them out of the situation they were born into; those who were repeatedly accused of pretentiousness in the process of discovering what they loved.

Dan Fox

Dan Fox

“To demand they be ‘authentic’ to their social circumstances is a form of social control,” Fox says. “Decry pretense and you not only deny the possibility of change, you remove a tool of social critique from the hands of communities that need them.” Trying to alter the life you were born into requires some work. It requires trying out different interests, different fronts. To call each attempt pretentious is to stand in the way of a person’s growth.

Fox says that the anxiety that makes people throw around the accusation of pretentiousness “derives from a fear of the unfamiliar and unpredictable.” It’s a defense mechanism. In a social group or small town, there’s pressure to conform, to be like the group. And acting differently, liking different things, is often seen as a threat to the group or community. It challenges the prevailing attitudes and interests and forces people to consider how “real” the uniformity is—is everyone “naturally” this way, or is it the simply influence of the group?

Oscar Wilde’s famous quote serves as a cornerstone here: “To be natural is a very difficult pose to keep up.” Whether we admit it or not, the self we each present to the world is not a pure authentic self, but some mix of interests, exposure, and interpretation. “There is a serious cognitive dissonance between the effort we put into controlling our image and, at the same time, claiming allegiance to transparency and authenticity,” Fox says. We’re all to some degree working within boxes, playing and altering them to our tastes, combining them.

It would be difficult to finish Pretentiousness and accuse Fox of pretentiousness in the pejorative sense. Raised in a place without an arts scene, he was accused of pretentiousness often enough to consider what it really meant and the insecurities it masked. Although the title is sure to elicit some knee-jerk reactions, Fox is an even-handed and likable guide on this journey. His ostensible defense of pretentiousness is simply a reminder that we’re all figuring it out as we go.

Joshua James Amberson lives in Portland, Oregon. He's the author of the decade-long running zine Basic Paper Airplane and a regular contributor to The Portland Mercury. His work has appeared in Broken Pencil, American Songwriter, and We'll Never Have Paris. More from this author →