Fox’s brief and elegantly righteous essay on pretentiousness is definitely on the side of the angels, if arguably not quite pretentious enough. Its compacted historical sketches sometimes dissolve into mere lists namechecking a series of films or writers, while much of the book muses on the notion of authenticity, and explores the history of the theory of acting – in which everyone is indeed pretending ... The most important contribution of Fox’s argument, perhaps, is his claim that what really deserves to be damned as pretentiousness is not an aiming-up but an aiming-down. 'Anti-intellectualism,' he notes, 'is a snobbery … The anti-intellectual is often anxious not to be marked as part of an educated elite.'
Fox understands that '(w)hen authenticity is in question it generates deep anxieties.' He elucidates in an intelligent and conversational style the many complex layers of aesthetic, class and social discomfort that often arise in the face of pretentiousness ... Fox's essay goes a long way toward making the compelling case that '(t)he pretensions of individuals from all walks of life — their ambition, their curiosity, their desires to make the world around them a more interesting place — is cultural literacy in action.'
What the book is interested in, and what it largely succeeds in doing, is inverting the charge of pretentiousness so that it becomes a marker not of dissimulation or self-delusion, but of intellectual ambition and personal autonomy—a refusal to be defined by a reductive understanding of oneself ... By the end of the book, pretentiousness comes to mean something much closer to ambition, to a noble cultural yearning. And there is something deeply humane, and even touching, in Fox’s unwillingness to see any form or pretentiousness as bad.
...if you read only one part of this bracing, lively, espresso shot of a book, I’d probably choose the final chapter. But there’s so much good stuff in this essay: insights about art, fashion, acting, music, film, culture, as well as urban and small-town life. I read it in one sitting and it spoke to so much of my life experience that it felt like I’d been waiting for it for years.
It would be too much to say that Fox has ended the reckless use of 'pretentious' as a bludgeon against the unfamiliar, but whoever reads Pretentiousness will come away with a greater appreciation for art, ambition, exploration, and failure ... It’s easy to conclude that Fox’s essay, and the idea of pretentiousness in general, is only an issue for the arts, but Fox’s arguments are actually a strong base for wider consideration ... One potential criticism of the book is that Fox doesn’t offer examples of anything he actually considers 'pretentious' to counter reckless use of the term ... Fox’s goal is not to make everyone love the art he loves, but to stop, as much as he can, the wholesale and passive dismissal of certain modes of expression. It’s clear that I’m predisposed to take his side, but I think his prose is strong enough that even those who claim to speak out for the common people will find themselves agreeing with, or at least impressed by, Fox’s essay.
Fox’s book is an elegant and convincing defense of this idea, and I understand the loyalty he feels to the adolescent pretentious enough to grow up to be the author of this book. I think he’s right in that what we tend to call 'authentic' can usually be revealed to be a perfected form of pretentiousness, and that a pretentious creative individual is at worst an endearingly innocent, 'tragicomic' fool who might someday turn into what he or she aspires to be. But in trying to reclaim pretentiousness from its pejorative uses, Fox weights the scales too heavily on the side of pretentiousness as the larval mode of creativity.
Much of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters focuses on issues of class: how it’s lived, how it’s signified, how it’s discussed, how it shapes and affects the creative work that we watch, listen to and read ... in this book [Fox] has written an intellectually rigorous study of culture that echoes the scope of their work. His argument is convincing, and it may leave readers with a newfound respect for the term that gives his book its title.
His final recommendation on behalf of pretension is that it 'keeps life interesting,' which seems like a pretty low bar to clear. In the end, his book comes to epitomize a new genre of criticism that forgoes the task of evaluation and instead admits that all qualitative assessments are futile, arbitrary, and ultimately meaningless. Maybe so, but Pretentiousness is, as a result, baggy and oblique, loosely organized around a scattering of muzzy proclamations that do not clarify the central concept but stretch it to the point where it no longer seems to mean anything.