Book Reviews - Summer 2016

With Noses Held High

Subscription required


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.

Login to view the full article

If you are a current digital subscriber, login here.

Forgot password?

Need to register?

Already a subscriber through The American Scholar Digital or Print/Digital Combination?


Are you a Phi Beta Kappa sustaining member?

Want to subscribe?

Would you like to subscribe and gain complete access to our website?

Are you a print subscriber that would like digital access too? Renew your subscription at the Print and Digital level and your current print subscription will automatically be upgraded as well.

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.

Comments powered by Disqus