Being pretentious has its benefits

By Troy Doetch

On the third floor of Reavis Hall, twenty-something 20-somethings had read a fictional story I wrote, in a particularly good week this semester, when a burst of optimistic energy overpowered my perpetual introverted cringe.

The students of Writing Fiction had a generally positive reaction; for the most part, they smiled when recalling the particularly outrageous plot points and expressed concern and disgust towards protagonists and villains, respectively. They told me they picked up on the theme of the artist’s role in creating art and the mob mentality that permeates the human condition. They also loved, they said, how I made the narrating character, the central voice I’d created to tell the story, out to be such a pretentious scalawag (Note: Some actually said words more scatological than scalawag). The punchline of this anecdote—which I’ve kept close to my chest for several weeks—is that there was no narrating character. Sadly, I am that pretentious scalawag.

It’s always an odd sack of mixed candies to be called pretentious. On one hand, there’s the sweet, nougaty connotation of being learned. When I write, I suppose it shows I’ve been acclimated to academia, that I have acquired the appropriate shibboleths and sentence structures to instill confidence in my reader that I have, indeed, cracked a few book spines in my heyday.

Why yes, I did study for the GRE; thank you for noticing.

When someone calls me pretentious, I am hurt, no doubt, but there is also a secret pride in having created something which could pass as intelligent. Similarly, when someone calls me a hipster, somewhere under my horn-rimmed glasses, I can’t help but feel flattered that my disparager has correctly deduced that I have a wealth of knowledge about LCD Soundsystem and would look great with a mustache.

On the other, more philosophical hand, I realize the hypocrisy of adopting an obfuscating writing style. I imagine the scene in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, in which his narrator reads about the shipwreck of Major General Franklin Hoenikker, pausing at the phrase “Fata Morgana” to consult a reference book and declare the expression to be “poetic crap.” I wonder: What is the intent of a method of communication that complicates more than it clarifies? What is the validity of an argument that succeeds in establishing ethos, but hides the logos and pathos of the position? What is the point of using turmeric when it just makes your chicken korma more difficult to swallow? Is it to overcompensate for a lack of actual content with an embellished style? Absolutely.

The above series of unanswered questions said in a good 68 words what could have been expressed with one yawn.

A good friend of mine, who’s paid much more than I am to write, recently weighed in on the issue. He said although my writing has an entertaining flow, I’m trying much too hard. I just have to stop, clear my mind and write about an idea. So I tried it: Machination. Verisimilitudinous. Moulinet.