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.