I’m guilty of it. I’ve used the word pretentious as a bludgeon to beat down the ambitious, to mock attempts at being intellectual, attempts at surprising or throwing an audience’s expectations out of whack. But every time I see someone else use it, I feel ashamed of having ever done it myself, because there may be no more pretentious act than dubbing someone else’s work pretentious. There are many problems with pretentious as epithet, the largest being the problem of the imputation of the critic’s own lofty point of view. When you call something else pretentious—that is, accuse a work of having a phony intellectual content, a shallowness masquerading as depth—you set yourself up as the transcendent arbiter of intellect; you grant yourself a superintellect that never fails to understand what others have been attempting and can parcel out precisely how much intellectual validity their efforts warrant. But no critic can stand on that Archimedian ground, even if we were to agree that there is some kind of objective way to measure and quantify intellectualism, which there isn’t.
The epithet pretentious invokes the image of the parasitical critic, who feeds off of the work of other artists to build his own self-esteem. He sits back and points out the intellectual shortcomings of other people’s work while never having to trouble to venture his own. His ability to find “pretension” in all efforts to wrestle with complexity justifies his own failures to act, to make something, to attempt to hunt bigger game than the aesthetic success of the work of other artists. Not all critics are parasites, and of course criticism can be a constructive medium of its own. But the critics of pretence are rarely more than bloodsuckers, feeding on other artists to nourish their own superiority. Such critics defend their nebulous intellectual turf with lofty insults because they are afraid to actually stalk it and find out what contradictions and inconscistencies and complexities lurk there. Pretentious as epithet is a vital pillar of anti-intellectualism, allowing bully reactionary critics to shout down anything that threatens the status quo of debased culture subservient to the oligarchy and the hydraulics of consumerism.
The next logical step from this argument is to praise pretension, to celebrate overreaching, to listen to an album like the Rascals’ Once Upon a Dream or Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans and not wince at its earnestness or patronize it as camp. It means taking intentions seriously, even if the work derived from them in no way meets those intentions. How do we do this without commiting a variant of the intentional fallacy, without reconfiguring intention in order to make a work more successful, as some literary critics like to do with authors of whom they are fond, mounting implausible and counter-intuituive defenses of writers such as Richardson and Ann Radcliffe? You probably can’t, but maybe the effort is worth it, if only to make the critical enterprise serve intellectual pursuits rather than undermine them.