The Rime of the Postmodern Mariner

More ramblings of Rhys Hughes.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Pretty Pretentious

I wish critics and reviewers would learn the difference between the words 'pretentious', 'pompous' and 'grandiose'. They are not interchangeable terms.

Some of Dylan Thomas's poetry is pretentious -- in other words it pretends to have a meaning that it doesn't actually possess. Whether Dylan Thomas himself was pretentious is a different question. It could be that he simply never intended for those particular poems to have a meaning, in which case they function more as music than conventional poetry. He was certainly never pompous or grandiose; and neither was his poetry.

I remember reading the entry on William Gaddis in an encyclopedia of literature and finding the absurd comment that his work is 'possibly pretentious'. But what is it possibly pretending to be? Ambitious? But it is ambitious. Insightful? But it is insightful. Elegantly written? But it is elegantly written. If a writer's work is truly what it claims to be, then it can't be possibly pretentious (or even definitely pretentious), no matter how complex or difficult it might be...

Carlos Castaneda was pretentious. He pretended to be something he wasn't, namely a mystic with access to a deeper reality; but he wasn't pompous or grandiose. Khalil Gibran was both pretentious and pompous: his pseudo-Nietzschean declarations on morality, beauty and death are carefully engineered to give the impression of an enormous wisdom that simply isn't there. So much for his writing; his drawings are genuinely fine.

Kingsley Amis was pompous, but not pretentious or grandiose. His offensive conservatism never pretended to be anything other than what it was, and his pomposity was always provincial. Contrast him with Leo Tolstoy, who was grandiose in an extreme degree, but absoluely never pretentious or pompous. In such a case 'grandiose' should be a term of respect.

John Barth is pompous. He's also grandiose and arrogant. But he's never pretentious. He never pretends to be a genius -- he is a genius. The same is true for Nabokov. Nabokov was arrogant because he claimed to be better than other writers, but his work really is better than the work of (most) other writers, so by no fair means can he ever be called pretentious.

Georges Perec, on the other hand, was neither pretentious, pompous nor grandiose. Although it has the most grandiose title of all, his novel Life: a User's Manual is focussed on lives rather than Life. Neither was Perec arrogant. A smartass is what Perec was: a glorious one. It must be a bitter pill to swallow, but the blunt truth is that some writers truly are more clever than all critics; and sometimes even more clever than most readers.

Critics, please get your insults right!


Blogger Safaa said...

Great post, Rhys!

6:35 AM  
Blogger Fabio Fernandes said...

Exquisitely written, masterful explanation, Rhys! I agree wholeheartedly, especially regarding Perec, one of my favorite authors.

6:38 AM  

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