By Dan Fox
…I am incredibly happy to have read it for the simple reason that we all, in my opinion, ought to think about how we feel and why before throwing insults at one another…
Dan Fox’s essay on the merits of pretentiousness is the kind of book that I feel obliged to make notes in and this, to me, classifies it as a very specific kind of work. Defiling a clean page of print with a stroke of indelible pen is a habit that I have only recently embraced, and even then, I need to steel myself before making that permanent mark. Sometimes, however, one must be brave. What Dan Fox- the author of this intriguing work- does not know is that this act of bravery on my part is the highest of compliments. Sometimes, writers just come up with ideas that are really, really smart- things that resonate with my past experiences, present anxieties and future aspirations in a way that I don’t want to forget once I close a book. Only these phrases, observations and critiques- the kind that make me pause in my reading in awed contemplation- deserve an underscore. My copy of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters now boasts a fair few.
Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is essentially a wholehearted defence of all things pretentious. It also gets to the core of what constitutes pretension, why it can be such a devastating insult and why the accuser finds so much affront in whatever object or action he or she deems pretentious. As something I had never given much thought to, but in which I had, naturally, taken part at various points in my life, these revelations were astounding.
Most strikingly, Fox states that those who are pretentious only seem so from the perspective of having ideas above your station and that all of this comes down to class. That’s to say, somebody with a thoroughly working class background who buys records, dresses kinda vintage and has interests that aren’t in accordance with his or her general social situation (perhaps in contrast to his or her peers and parents), may be considered the pretentious type.
Likewise, a restaurant that attempts a more expensive and classy angle may also be considered pretentious- but by whom? Fox suggests that the accusation has as much to do with the accuser as it does the ‘pretentious’ subject in question. For example, a family who are unused to fine dining and who are uncomfortable in an expensive restaurant are far more likely to label said restaurant ‘pretentious’ than a family of doctors and dentists who dine out every other week. In this way, he suggests that the insult itself is a way of reassuring yourself of your own down-to-earth demeanour, a reassurance that is necessary in the face of the insecurities linked to social class.
These insights made the book fascinating and I am incredibly happy to have read it for the simple reason that we all, in my opinion, ought to think about how we feel and why before throwing insults at one another. Anyone who shares this view should read this book. In addition, anyone who is accused of pretentiousness on a regular basis will find a cast iron defence of such behaviour in this work. (Christmas present ideas, anyone?!)
Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is that kind of thoughtful creative non-fiction that I have previously loved. It reminded me a lot of essay collections such as ‘The Empathy Essays’ by Leslie Jamieson and ‘Sidewalks’ by Valeria Luiselli, both phenomenal works. Fox’s work also has a strong Roland Barthes feel to it, although partly in the sense that it required concentration to fully digest. The whole thing also very much struck me as something a sociology student might take out of the library for an upcoming essay on the reception of contemporary art.
I adore these types of work, the kind that encourage creative thinking on complex topics, but I must confess that I felt that these particular essays were not in the same class as Jamieson, Luiselli or Barthes (…not that many people can claim to be in the same class as The Almighty Barthes). I personally felt that the best that this book had to offer could have been condensed rather drastically by about half. There was flurry of underlining at the beginning of the book and at the end, but I found a large part of the middle section a tad tedious. I have the impression that Fox wanted to delay divulging the grand finale of his theory on pretentiousness for as long as possible in order pad everything out. Ultimately, however, I didn’t feel that his reflections on popular music, for example, were especially accurate, nor did they offer much to the work as a whole.
By all accounts, my congratulations to Dan Fox for intelligently approaching a subject that affects every one of us in different ways. And my thanks, also, to Dan Fox for revolutionising my perspective on the matter.
…At some point in the book, Fox makes a comment about how dressing all in black is a classic look among the so-called pretentious. As I look down, alarmed, at my entirely black outfit, sat outside a café by myself with a cappuccino and my Mac, I suddenly feel self-conscious, but I try and brush the feeling away. As Mr Fox would likely agree, haters gonna hate.