What I Mean When I Say “Pretentious”

I mean that I need a better word.

Pretentious: acting as if you know more than you do, or acting as if you’re more skilled than you are. It can be applied to people and places, but I only use it for art (ex. “how pretentious…this book used the word ‘overlarge’ not once, but twice”).

But what I really mean when I say “pretentious” is that the work doesn’t resonate with me, yet it acts like it should—it seems like it wants to. It reaches out to me, but for whatever reason I find it too obnoxious to take by the hand.

Often when I’m reading/watching/etc. something, I’ll think, “Oh no, I don’t like this, it’s pretentious. Oh, wait a second, it’s actually good.” Did the work improve? Did it rise to meet my expectations? Or did it simply break through to me, after wearing away at my defenses?

Let me look at my experiences with two categories of things: fiction and music.


I’ve read many a tale that I thought was pretentious. Shakespeare is bad enough…any fictional work starring Shakespeare—especially Shakespeare back from the dead—can just be crossed off my list immediately.

High-concept or bizarre-concept stuff is so hit-or-miss. There’s no algorithmic reason why I like the first twenty script pages of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” but everything but the first twenty pages of Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.” Both are considered classics in the “theatre of the absurd.” I can’t call one significantly more pretentious than the other, though, or significantly stupider for that matter. (The intersection of stupidity and pretentiousness essentially is absurdism, isn’t it? More proof that I shouldn’t be allowing myself to like this.)

What about the edgy unauthorized sequel to Gone with the Wind: The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall? Did you know that all along, Scarlet had a black sister named Cynara? Did you know that she had an affair with Rhett Butler? Did you know that this sounds like the worst thing ever? About 30 pages in, though, the pretention fell away. I realized that I found the narrator’s voice compelling—that I believed it, and her. Suddenly reading The Wind Done Gone became a pleasure—not its sorrows or its attack on American racism, but watching Cynara tell it.

I think I got acclimated to the work. With a little time, my own pretentions fell away, and I’m happier for it.


This section is twice as long as the Fiction section because few things stir more hatred than Your Least Favorite Bands.

There’s a difference between hating Nickelback and hating Nirvana, though. (Disclaimer: I don’t know much at all about either band, just a lot about their reputations.) One is the lowest common denominator (not pretentious at all), the other the highest (superpretentious). If you hate either one, you can easily take on a superior attitude…but if you hate Nickelback, you’re nothing special.

If you hate Nirvana, though, you may be a demigod. You’ve got taste—taste beyond taste. You have a level of discernment that 99.9% of self-proclaimed musical “fans” don’t. I think this is the reason why it’s taking me so long to listen to the Beatles discography. The universe agrees that they’re the number-one best band. If I don’t like them, or even if I rank them #2 on my own list, that makes me the #1 human by default.

But I went off-track, didn’t I? I started talking about popularity, not pretentiousness. In fact, I’m talking about pretentiousness on the part of the listener, not the musician.

The Beatles may have been pretentious, and there may be fifty books in my local library extolling their greatness, but not one of those books is 800 pages long. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, however, have their names on exactly one book in that same library, and it’s 800 pages long. This is more or less irrelevant to the quality of their music, but it does help generate a putrid pompous air.

Every time I listen to “Tarkus” (the song, not the album) (the whole song, not just Part Seven or Aquatarkus or whatever), I like it a little more. That’s not saying much, because the song is such trash. Horrible. I hate it. Oh, I mean…it doesn’t resonate with me. Oh, but those words are so hard to get out! What seems to me like an obvious mess is a masterpiece to millions on this earth. What are they hearing that I’m not? What could be more frustrating than feeling you don’t understand a series of sounds?

I hate it, so I lash out. That’s why I eagerly type forum posts saying, “This Song SUCKS! It Is So Pretentious DX.” Because the concept of the song is strange and stupid and beyond me, and that intro was going somewhere, but then it went on for three minutes, and then there were passages I could rip out of the song and take on their own, shackled to that lumpy whole. Because I wanted to like it and I feel left behind.

The harder I cling to bands, the more I absorb the love and hate into my identity. You see the band on my shirt? Yeah. They’re way better than the one on yours. Which is fun, but I’m doing it wrong. My personal connection to music should be five times more important than my personal stake in it being better than the music of Jimmy down the street.

…maybe instead of saying “it doesn’t resonate with me,” I should just say, “I don’t like it.” Maybe that would cut down on my own pretentiousness.

Thank you for reading, and Patrons, thank you for Patreonning.

If you like reading about the inner workings of my mind, also try my thoughts on the struggle of writing or my reflections on teaching, procrastination, and (sorta-)productive imagination. For a review of something that is certifiably un-pretentious, read my review of the web serial Pyrebound.

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