Friday, March 6, 2009

On Pretention

BBC News reports on a UK poll, which reveals that two-thirds of the sample admitted to having lied about reading a classic novel "to impress someone." The most lied-about book: Orwell's 1984 (42%). Remarkably, the highly-accessible dystopian novel beat out War and Peace (31%) and Ulysses (25%).

I can't understand how a person can get away with this without being exposed as a phony. Are these people not being asked follow-up questions? Worse, lying about reading books one has no interest in only acknowledges and bolsters the influence that pretentious "taste-makers" wield in the world of the middle and upper brow.

What do people actually like to read?

Asked which authors they really enjoyed reading, more than six out of 10 (61%) chose Harry Potter author JK Rowling, nearly a third (32%) ticked legal thriller writer John Grisham.

More than a fifth (22%) chose Shopaholic author Sophie Kinsella.

I would guess that an intelligent person is more likely to lie in these circumstances, for fear of the dreaded raised eyebrow. In a way, this is the inverse of someone calling a popular or low brow favorite a "guilty pleasure." Chuck Klosterman wrote a brilliant critique of this trend for Esquire a while back:

In and of itself, the phrase "guilty pleasure" seems like a reasonable way to describe certain activities. For example, it is pleasurable to snort cocaine in public restrooms, and it always makes you feel guilty; as such, lavatory cocaine fits perfectly into this category. Drinking more than five glasses of gin before (or during) work generally qualifies as a guilty pleasure. So does having sex with people you barely know, having sex with people you actively hate, and/or having sex with people you barely know but whom your girlfriend used to live with during college (and will now consequently hate). These are all guilty pleasures in a technical sense. However, almost no one who uses the term "guilty pleasure" is referring to activities like these. People who use this term are usually talking about why they like Joan of Arcadia, or the music of Nelly, or Patrick Swayze's Road House. This troubles me for two reasons: Labeling things like Patrick Swayze movies a guilty pleasure implies that a) people should feel bad for liking things they sincerely enjoy, and b) if these same people were not somehow coerced into watching Road House every time it's on TBS, they'd probably be reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Both of these assumptions are wrong.

Klosterman is especially insightful in his analysis of the psychology of those who use the term "guilty pleasure":
[They] fail to realize is that the only people who believe in some kind of universal taste—a consensual demarcation between what's artistically good and what's artistically bad—are insecure, uncreative elitists who need to use somebody else's art to validate their own limited worldview. It never matters what you like; what matters is why you like it. (Emphases added.)
It also doesn't matter if you have no interest in reading a book some critic thinks you "need" to read. You can be an intelligent, well-rounded person and still like Jurassic Park. (The same is not true if you are a fan of its sequel, The Lost Word, however -- that book truly sucked.)