What is wrong with pretentious books?

So I’ve spoken at length before about things I hate in books- being badly written or moralising are definitely up there as the two most obvious things to put me off a book, but I have never spoken at length about one of my *biggest* pet peeves. And since I seem to have reviewed the quintessential pretentious book the other day, I figured now was a good time to discuss this.

Trouble is it’s hard to define, even if you know it when you see it. There are some clues that give a pretentious book away: they never have a plot, a fair number of the characters will be mouthpieces for the author,  and there will be lots and lots of authorial intrusion. Not that these taken individually are always bad things, yet if you find them all in the same place, you can often guess what kind of book it will be.

What creates a gulf between “deep” books and pretentious ones in my mind is that it is marked by “philosophising gone wrong”. Of course, it doesn’t need to be said that a book isn’t pretentious just because a book is discussing heavy issues or making complex conclusions (but obviously I’m saying it anyway, for clarification). I will hit a person over the head with my copy of Crime and Punishment if they dare say books should never be profound! BUT there are times when a nice philosophical debate nosedives into “what the hell” territory. The most obvious being when the author thinks it’s a good idea to start moralising- and while not all books that moralise are pretentious, you can bet that all pretentious books include moralising.

i hate moralising books.png

As many of you know by now, I *hate*moralising- when the author puts on a sanctimonious tone and starts imposing their irrelevant views on the story, I’m a goner. But pretentious books *always* take moralising to a new level. Because in pretentious books the author is always trying to bamboozle the reader with their (*ahem*) brilliant observations that obviously no one has ever heard before (sorry to disappoint, there are no new ideas, get over it). And one of their favourite ways to do this is to use deliberately obtuse language.

Now, obviously I’m not referring to beautiful language (I officially give you permission to get all dewy eyed over Fitzgerald or Keats etc). No, I’m talking about when you read a sentence and go “ye wot?” There is a huge difference between beauty and obscurity. I mean, in the words of Keats “Truth is beauty”- deceptive language is actually harmful to the soul rather than nourishing.

Really, what pretentious authors fail to note is that the smartest people disseminate their ideas in as clear ways as possible. Nietzsche, for instance, said incredibly complex things in the simplest of sentences. While his words, like “God is dead” give the illusion of simplicity of thought, they deliver a hammer blow to the psyche. A pretentious fool would use innumerable, over-complicated ways to deliver their message- often something that doesn’t even make sense anyway (*cough* As I Lay Dying *cough cough*).

Nor do intelligent people talk in circles. They get right to the point and do not waste time on the surface level details. A fool is bogged down by issues such as whether Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy or a comedy- which I can tell you from experience is not a subject that warrants an hour long discussion (it’s a tragedy with subversive comic elements at the start to temporarily mislead the viewer- see, nice and simple). At best you’ve wasted an hour of your time, at worst you’ve convinced yourself of a lie and reached some pretty daft conclusions (yes, I’ve met people that think Romeo and Juliet is a comedy now).

bigly clever

All of this serves a single purpose. By making the meaning obscure, talking nonsense and distancing the reader from the truth, the reader is unable to relate on an emotional level. And this “unrelatability” is the biggest tell-tale sign of pretentious literature. Somewhere along the way, the author forgot that the book was supposed to make you feel more than just confusion. Art is not supposed to be an author rummaging round for a few lost brain cells- it is a quest for the reader’s heart and soul. Evidently, this is a test that pretentious writers fail every time. They are the kind of authors that never leave the Shire, let alone make it back home again.

(Yes I just finished with a Lord of the Rings analogy)

like a boss lord of the rings

So what about you? How do you feel about pretentious books? And what books do you think are an epic failure? Let me know in the comments!

71 thoughts on “What is wrong with pretentious books?

  1. I think I’ve done a decent job of doing my research on pretentious types of books (or the kinds that are disguised) by looking at reviews. I don’t enjoy the subversion of trying to force people to change their beliefs or whatever.

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  2. “use deliberately obtuse language.”

    Oh man, do I hate that. I like using words that aren’t as well known, just to stretch my vocab and to give my mind something to chew on, but I’m not trying to convince somebody of something. It’s only if their logic is fuzzy, or non-existent, that the “big” words come out and in such a way that you can’t really parse what they’re saying.

    OR

    Totally with you on that 🙂

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    1. Plus you can use words that are not well known in sentences where their very context and give you the definition. But if you use more then one lesser known word in a sentence and also write the sentence in a lesser used structure then you are just an *beep* aka super pretentious.

      I love authors that use new words so I can hopefully learn new words. I hate the latter case.

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  3. There are some books with completely obscure references that also have the same effect of distancing the reader, for example Jonathan Lethem’s books. Thank goodness for kindles and easy access to wikipedia for those!

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  4. Okay. So hopefully I’m not offending anyone here, but two incredibly pretentious books/authors that spring to my mind are Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, and (Oh God, I’m already ducking) Catcher In the Rye, by Salinger. The first book had unbearable characters and an even worse plot. And I know legions of people LOVE Catcher In the Rye, but it annoyed the heck out of me when I was in high school, and it annoyed me even more when I reread it as an adult. As of five years ago when I had to retire from my job as a children’s librarian, both of these were still on the high school reading list in my town.😕

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    1. haha no- you should feel free to speak your mind! I’m not actually familiar with Ayn Rand’s work- so you’re off the hook with that one. As for Catcher in the Rye… well that’s a very hit and miss book- you either love it or you hate it- I’m in the “love it” camp, but it’s actually one of those books where I can see the other side of the argument and get why people wouldn’t like it

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    2. I HATED catcher in the rye. Many people love it because he’s a whiney teen and that reminds them of themselves or something. But like, even as a teen I hated that book and had no time for whiny man babies.

      As for Rand, I’ve heard of it but nothing good – that its (maybe?) about how white people are the best or some other racist tone. Not interested.

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      1. I like The Catcher in the Rye in high school even though I wasn’t really an angsty teen at all. But I kind of identified with the concept that a lot of people are “phoney” or whatever. I reread it a couple years after the first time and definitely liked it less. I can see how it’s pretty polarizing.

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        1. Yeah I’m with you there- I was an angsty teen, but didn’t read it till uni, so I dodged that bullet 😉 I just really liked hating Holden Caulfield and then by the end of the book I even ended up sympathising with him! Everyone I know has had a different reaction to that book- it’s really interesting.

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    3. I could not stand Atlas Shrugged, either. Well before the end I was ready not to finish it. (I did manage to get through 2 1/2 of the movies before I bottomed out.) I’ve never even tried Catcher in the Rye, as, having read a Wikipedia summary, I can just tell I’d be rooting for Holden Caulfield to jump out a window. I have better ways to expend energy.

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      1. haha I’m getting the sense that I should *avoid* Atlas Shrugged at all costs! hahaha I liked the book- and I can tell you there were plenty of times when I wanted Caulfield to take a running jump, so you certainly wouldn’t be alone in that!

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        1. There are plenty of really popular books that I just couldn’t get into, or outright don’t like. I really don’t think people should judge so harshly as some do; just because we don’t all like the same books doesn’t mean some of us are monsters.

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  5. Using deliberately confusing language is a huge turn-off for me, as well. We all know people do this in purpose in, say, high school because they think they’re pulling something over their teacher or they genuinely think that’s “how smart people write.” My biggest issue is when people continue to do this at a level when they should know better, including grad school or, even worse, published papers by expects. There is nothing worse than listening to a grad student ramble for 5 minutes using all kinds of jargon and convoluted sentence structure and suspecting they said something that was really not that interesting or smart at all.

    In terms of books, my pet peeve is bad literary fiction, written by people who haven’t gotten over the idea that all “deep” literature is some kind of stream of consciousness James Joyce rip-off where nothing actually ever happens, but, boy, is their sentence structure convoluted and “profound.”

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    1. Yes!! I actually have a really funny story about writing an essay in a really obtuse fashion in uni, when I was trying to bamboozle my tutor (who wasn’t English) because I’d been forced to take his course and wasn’t too pleased about it 😉 Needless to say it didn’t work (though he complimented me on my language before tearing my work to shreds and giving me a bad mark- which I totally deserved :p ). I’ve also been in classes where people have just acted like a walking thesaurus to analyse a piece of literature- using about a million words for “decay” but not saying anything profound at all- it is galling when they get away with that!
      I am the *exact* same!! Those kind of books irritate me so much!!

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  6. I get your anger and annoyance at moralizing and authorial intrusions or characters getting on a soapbox (Atlas Shrugged, most things Chuck Palahniuk, plenty of the crap Tom Robbins churned out). With that said, I’m not sure that big or obscure words equals a pretentious book. I prefer books that have a larger than normal vocabulary. I like learning a few obscure or new-to-me words when I read a book. I also enjoy the art of the long sentence. Complex can be profound. And complex can avoid pretentiousness.

    Maybe while I don’t like puzzles, I do enjoy the challenge of a beautiful long sentence with an unusual word or two. But the whole pretentious “I have all the answers” moralizing thing will make me want to throw a book in a trash bin (well, recycle bin, actually).

    Are there any books you do like that have complexity of both words and structure, but also lack pretentiousness (and are maybe even profound)?

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    1. Haha no- nor do I- which is why I had a whole paragraph explaining that I did not mean beautiful language (and referenced Fitzgerald). I whole-heartedly agree that beautiful, long sentences are wonderful. What I meant was a deliberate attempt to obscure the meaning- rather than difficult syntax of vocabulary.
      I can think of so many authors that I love that write complex literature- many mentioned in this post. But since you asked, here are some of my favourite books with beautiful, complex language: Picture of Dorian Grey, Grapes of Wrath, Great Gatsby, Yellow Wallpaper, Turn of the Screw, Rebecca, Frankenstein, Fahrenheit 451, Armadale, anything by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and even the more modern We Were Liars. Oh and Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Name of the Wind for good measure (cos genre fiction should get a mention too). Oh and Alice in Wonderland for pure absurdity. I’m also a huge Dickens, Austen and Hardy fan. And in terms of plays I’d say Dr Faustus and Richard II (really anything by Shakespeare, but that one’s probably the most beautifully written, with Othello coming in close second). And please bear in mind that my favourite poets are the Romantics 😉
      Sorry for the long winded response- but this is a book blog and you did ask me about books I love 😉

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  7. I couldn’t agree more. Throughout my degree I’ve had to slog through so much pretentious drudgery it’s unreal. I actually find the worst comes from Literary Critics rather than the authors themselves – Homi Bhahba in particular is a master of writing huge swathes of dense prose that actually say very little (he actually won a mock-award for the worst-written sentence of the year some time back).

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  8. I agree with so much of this! A hatred of moralising can make it tough to get through some ‘classic’ literature (I’m thinking 18thC novels or stuff like Little Women), which is awesome but written when people couldn’t let themselves (or their daughter/wives) read fiction unless it was somehow improving.

    Sidenote: Do you think that the comic elements of Romeo and Juliet are really meant to *mislead* the viewer, or is it just that the audience were happy with the idea of tragedy and farce in the same play? If you laugh and cry at the same play it’s just good value!

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    1. Ooh, and talking of pretentious writers – have you read any Umberto Echo? I do enjoy his books but he likes using three or four languages, not to mention various philosophical meanderings, just to emphasise your ignorance.

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    2. Ah well I find there’s a difference between having a moral and moralising, so I wouldn’t necessarily agree, but I see your point. Well, it’s more that it starts in the comedic fashion, but devolves into a tragedy. There’s nothing wrong with tragicomedies in general- but it doesn’t fit into this category and it certainly isn’t a comedy. I also don’t think it’s an especially valuable discussion 😉

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      1. I agree there is a difference, but the line can be pretty fine sometimes.
        It could be a valuable discussion if one is interested in genre – I don’t think it is something that radically redefines the play or is worth obsessing over however.

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  9. So, so much of this I totally agree with! I tend not to finish books I find pretentious (generally if I can tell within the first 50 pages, I am done). One I slogged through – that I know most won’t agree with – was The Book Thief. I liked the underlying story of Liesel and her foster family, but I literally skipped 20 to 40 pages at a time just to find a section where *plot* *actually* *happened* and it wasn’t just Death going stream of consciousness. (And that type of thing should never be considered profound, folks. It should be seen as the comic relief. The ONLY author who did that well was Sir Terry Pratchett – and largely because he often did not take himself too seriously.)

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    1. That is a very good idea- I’m slowly, slowly getting better at putting down books I don’t like! Haha I did like that book- but it’s not for everyone- I know a fair number of people who didn’t finish it, so you’re not alone. Haha I do *love* Death in Pratchett- one of my favourite characters for sure!!

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  10. Probably not contributing much to the discussion at this point because I am unable to think of too many books that I have read that I could label pretentious. I usually get a decent feel of what is happening through reviews, etc. I have been lucky in that sense. I also am not the most diversified reader (unfortunately). I read fantasy and horror. These are not genres that one might encounter this problem in very often. However, I loved this post. Pretentious people and books are peeves of mine 😉

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    1. Ah no worries- I actually think pretentious books are pretty rare- cos when I thought about it the number of books that fall into this category is pretty slim- but it still drives me crazy when it does come up. No you definitely don’t get it in those genres fortunately! Yes me too!! Thanks for your comment! 😀

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  11. Another great post with a very important topic! I agree with everything you said. One of my worst pet peeves when it comes to pretentious books is how authors try to create new words. No. Just Stop.

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  12. Hahahah I actually do like reading your reactions to pretentious books though. 😀 😀 I haven’t come across one recently and can’t think of one really, except academic books related to criminology where an author completely says no to every other theories out there in order to say that their theory is the right one. However, in a more “sciency” field, this kind of attitude actually helps stir up the field of research and bring others to discredit (or support) the theory of the author. In a work of fiction, I do hope I’ll never run into an author who just wants to share his unheard words with a reading community and make it seem like he has big ideas when he’s actually just saying random sh*t. Great post and 100% agree with you. 😀

    – Lashaan

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    1. hahah thank you!! Yeah- I actually think they’re pretty rare- thank goodness- cos when I come across them they drive me crazy!! haha thank you- I’m not so familiar with that, cos I don’t tend to dip my toes in sciencey books very often- but I can see why that would be a problem!!

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  13. I love this post!! You really perfectly listed all the hallmarks of a pretentious book. That last point you made about being obscure/confusing is spot on – I see it in academic texts too. When studying I often found the easiest way to tell a good source from a rubbish one was whether the author tried to clearly and succinctly communicate a useful/interesting point, or whether they used lots of flowery language and confusing sentences to make what was ultimately a very banal and obvious point (basically using intelligent-sounding waffle to hide the fact they had nothing to say). Language is meant for communicating ideas with other people, not bamboozling them! Love that word choice btw 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much!! Yes- I was definitely thinking about academic books as well. I’ve *definitely* had that experience more than once- although I have found excellent sources on subjects I found truly baffling that put their ideas very simply. I don’t know who the ones that write in such a pompous manner think they’re kidding! haha thank you!

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      1. Very true, it’s a real skill to communicate baffling topics/ideas clearly and succinctly – I really appreciated and learned from the ones that did. As for the pompous ones, I think the only thing I ever got from them was a ridiculous quote or two to make fun of 🙂 (but someone published them so hey, the pompous waffle strategy appears to be working out for them!)

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  14. You have nailed it with this post. It’s circular, obtuse language which always frustrates me. The thing I don’t understand is how do these books become so popular? Is it just that the masses of want-to-be intellectuals are tricked? What am I missing here?!

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    1. Thank you!! I’m so glad you agree!! And I’ve never understood it either. Especially cos people have such flimsy arguments about why they like these books. In fact- recently a group of people I know that all read Nutshell, ended up praising it and calling it a great book, even though they all DNF’d it- it literally makes no sense to me that not one of them had the courage to say it was a bad book. I feel like I’m missing something too!!

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  15. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that you can always tell when a book is pretentious, but not always WHY it’s pretentious. Your definition hits the nail on the head. I don’t want to generalise, but it feels like a book dips into pretentious territory when the author is clearly writing to enjoy the sound of their own “voice,” rather than to reach a reader.
    As a side note, I’m curious to see what you see as “overcomplicating a message that makes no sense” in As I Lay Dying? (I love Faulkner — with his weird metaphors and stream of consciousness and ramblings about dust — but I’ll admit I had to grit my teeth through some parts of Absalom, Absalom.)

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    1. Oh yes I totally get what you mean!! YES! Really agree with you on that definition.
      Okay, so I’m happy to explain that. Personally I believe he convolutes his writing deliberately and in as I lay dying, this was to present the idea that “words have no meaning” (which, sure, that’s true when you write in the obtuse fashion he uses- but doesn’t stand up if you write like every other writer, trying to illuminate the world with clarity, so I don’t believe his argument about meaning makes a whole lot of sense and his overcomplicated use of language poorly disguises that inherent lack of logic).

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