Book Reviews - Summer 2016

With Noses Held High

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Personal aspiration need not always lead to snobbery

Lívia Cristina L. C./Flickr

By Becca Rothfeld

June 6, 2016


Pretentiousness: Why It Matters by Dan Fox; Coffee House Press, 159 pp., $15.95

In high school, when I smoked clove cigarettes, watched Jean-Luc Godard films, and professed my love for a range of clichéd signifiers of sophistication, my classmates often accused me of pretension—an allegation I resented. The word seemed to imply an element of insincerity, of performance. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “pretentious” as a matter of “attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.” Say what you will, my tastes were genuine. I subjected my long-suffering and chronically unimpressed boyfriend to Breathless because I found it moving. I may have been insufferable, but was I really pretentious?

These days, “pretentious” is a go-to, catch-all disparagement—fussy restaurants serve pretentious fare, and flowery prose is pretentious fodder. But was it always a term of denigration? Dan Fox, the co-editor of frieze magazine, examines the history of the concept and how it evolved into such a ubiquitous accusation.

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Becca Rothfeld is a freelance critic and masters student at the University of Cambridge. She will begin her PhD in philosophy at Harvard this fall.

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