Why Pretentious Writing is Pretentious

ObHwIlM

At some point in your life, you encounter the most insipid arguments defending a particular stance. They can mix in the writer’s most cherished logical fallacies, hold widely contradicting assertions, or even conclude with flat denial: stating that the work is so good that you either get it or you don’t. However, these pea-brained writings are often easy to spot (usually through a very very bad command of proper English); and they’re just as easy to mock the arguments’ riddled flaws.

Yet, what’s worse than this is pretentious writing, permeating purple prose for no reason other than to hide substantive evidence through ornate language and half-assed subterfuge. What makes this worse than naturally inane arguments is the fact that they actually manage to convince people! You would expect one to understand that a flowery Nabokov hand is not the proper means for persuasive discussion. It is the writer’s job to convince, not to obscure. Either you bend over and prostrate yourself in order to gently point out clear equivocations in their arguments, or you just give up and fall in despair at the lack of logic in your fellow human being.

Pretentious writing has left me in despair!

Pretentious writing has left me in despair!

Classical identification is one of the most common tools (and problems) in a pretentious writer's toolbox. Suppose for instance that someone states,

“Free! suffuses each criterion of Joseph Campell’s monomyth into its lush storytelling, enacting the epic hero archetype both literally and metaphorically, as well as downplaying the damsel in distress paradigm under iconoclastic feminism.”

Supposing that identification were even true (it could be; Free! after all is a deconstruction of yaoi), this mere emulation doesn’t actually say anything positive (or negative) about the work. Sure, it satisfies so-and-so’s requirements, but so what? That’s no less impressive than saying that Toaru Kagaku no Railgun pays “homage” to the K-ON! group dynamic. Identification is objective evidence that means nothing without further interpretation and conclusions. That line has cute vocabulary and grammar, but you’re just applying lipstick on a pig.

DECONSTRUCTION!

DECONSTRUCTION!

This falls exactly in line with one of the biggest problems with classical references. By drawing comparisons to prototypical works, writers implicate deeper qualities to the compared work under false pretenses. Free!‘s Haruka is the homoerotic Kerouac of his story, but who gives a patootie? Just because the comparison can be made doesn’t mean one can automatically infer quality writing. Monkeys on typewriters have likely said more substantial things than that.

Moreover, being an example of a certain archetype doesn’t make the character intrinsically good himself. References to and from classical works in such a sense is not only pretentious but contradictory. What makes classical figures powerful characters is the level of their complexity beyond following simple criteria (note: not the mere fact of following a trope). In other words, it is their deviation from the archetype, or at the very least, their deeper elaboration on its conditions, that make them good characters. Gilgamesh, for example, is a terrible protagonist viewed standalone. He has literally zero complexity; ancient heroes in general are not praised for their depth in character. However, what makes these myths fantastic stories is the themes brought about on such simple characters (e.g., friendship versus homosexuality), and the level of symbolism they entail with these characters’ simple actions.

Get to the point.

Get to the point.

Pampering one’s compliments by making such references don’t actually mean anything. Classical references are simply a positive spin on stating that a certain work parrots cliches. That’s really all there is to it. English teachers around the world would be ashamed at such tragic (no pun intended) writings. Identification is the first step of proper analysis, but where’s the actual meat of your argument? What’s the purpose of this baseless comparison?

Clearly thesaurus’ed words has also got to be one of my favorites. It’s fine to use a thesaurus to supplement your writing when you can’t find the precise word to fit your scheme. However, this does not mean you should pick the most arcane word in the list. Synonyms do not share the exact same meanings; even going with awkwardly syllabic words can already make a sentence clumsy to read. This is one of the biggest problems with machine writing (as well as provide intuitive evidence against P=NP). Honestly, which one of these two openers is clearer than the other?

“Revolutionary Girl Utena takes simple stories and applies subtle meanings and motifs throughout every action in its screenplay.”
“Revolutionary Girl Utena arrests unadulterated chronicles and pertains insidious forces and arrangements throughout every enterprise in its screenplay.”

The second one sounds “better”, but word for word, what the heck does that even mean?

Stop being so obtuse, you dummy.

Stop being so obtuse, you dummy.

Now with all that said, it should be duly noted that two can play at that game. While this means that you should be skeptical, you should also be willing to accept contestable arguments without so conveniently strawmanning their logic and/or dismissing the result. Pretentiousness has its litter of problems, and you should be aware of what is and isn’t abstruse writing. But as with everything in life, moderation is key. If you remain cynical about every fleeting word, you may lose the big picture and eventually nitpick on one that doesn't actually hurt the overall stance (falling into your own logical fallacies instead). After all, everybody’s a critic. It’s easy to bash on someone else’s writing, but be aware that the same methodologies could very well be applied to you.

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8 comments

  1. This is good stuff. I don’t have anything much more to add to this. Pretentiousness is the bane of literature reviews everywhere – and good writing in general.

    The last paragraph brought up a very good point, which I wish you could have expounded on but is probably best being discussed in another post. Criticism isn’t identifying flaws – it’s understanding what the other writer is trying to say and discussing their work on those terms. I find isolated criticisms difficult to take seriously for that reason, but for some reason a lot of people on the Internet have mistakenly come to assume otherwise.

    1. Thanks! Yup, that’s how I feel too. Context is key, and when one takes a particular stance on any subject, he/she needs to actually understand what the other person is saying before immediately squabbling without due restraint. By making isolated criticisms, you’re not only not contributing to the discussion, but derailing it. Why internet, why? (the C3 review)

  2. You best not be talkin’ ’bout my beloved “meretricious”!!!
    (Gee, I wonder if a certain CnC comment thread inspired this)
    And that Free “quote” is hilarious. I honestly wish someone would write an entire Free review like that. I would read it repeatedly and giggle – mark my words!
    Oh yeah, kawaii post, Nilk. That Suite image is so perfect for so many situations.

    1. Hehe, glad you liked that Free! “quote”. I had trouble finding a recent anime to poke silly fun at without making undeserved bashing. Unfortunately, Free! will have to be my fall guy. :(

      Oh, I think why I find “meretricious” so hard to use is because it sounds like “Merry istmas!”. I keep attributing the word to a holiday card, heh.

  3. Oh wow, never thought I’d see that Suite Precure image resurface here of all places!

    Anyway, vague comparisons to classic literature is something that always irks me when I see people structuring their entire argument around it (such as people that defend Aku no Hana because they felt it contained coincidental parallels with Brave New World). As you mentioned, regardless of whether a work is playing homage to these classical tropes intentionally or unintentionally, it’s ultimately how the writer/director uses these components to convey their message. Far too often I find people simply draw these comparisons to inflate their own egos and or attempt to be profound. While I also appreciate my flowery Nabakov, I’d much rather have substance over style in a persuasive writing.

    Regarding your last paragraph, I felt it was an apt conclusion to the article and even helped inject a bit of optimism. I’d just like to add that I feel with peer reviewing and critiquing other people’s writings, it’s important to uphold one’s side of the bargain and provide reasonable feedback. Simply attacking the writer’s style or moral character is no better than rambling on for pages about self-satisfactory masturbation.

    1. Of course. That Suite Precure image will stand the test of time. Its ability to apply in a wide number of situations is nothing short of profound!

      People have compared Aku no Hana to Brave New World? Oh man, that’s a riot. It reminds me of all the Orwellian talk in Psycho Pass, just because the writers keep blatantly citing dystopian novels. Real subtle, Urobuchi. This also ties into the problems with needless quote-dropping in anime, but I guess that’s also due for another post.

      Glad you liked the conclusion/last paragraph in particular. I love the idea of skepticism but there’s also a point where one becomes too skeptic. I feel that society has at some point become too jaded with deception in media, food products, or what else, to such a point that they question every little detail while losing their prior intent. This also ties into why there’s so much pseudo-science ruling the internet. People play skeptic on some things and yet go with confirmation bias when it suits their opinion (what comes immediately to mind is clumsy beliefs on negligible food hazards and $5000 cables).

  4. I love how this showed up just after the Makoto Itou thread at CnC happened. Totally a coincidence.

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