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9 may 2016

I once wanted to use a quotation from Augustine's Confessions as an epigraph to a book, and I wanted to print it in Latin, seeing as Augustine wrote it in Latin. The copy-editor objected that Latin was pretentious. I replied, "It's only pretentious if you're pretending."

Of course in this case the pretense wasn't about me; I could read the Latin. The pretense was social: that I lived in world of Latin-literates, one that hasn't existed outside small coteries for half a millennium now. I just found the book and remembered that our solution was a compromise: use the Latin but include a translation. This makes sense, because you don't want to be pretentious on behalf of your audience – that would be positively presumptuous. On the other hand, what the heck did I spend thousands of my father's dollars learning Latin for, if I couldn't use the language for the opening of a scholarly book from a university press?

Dan Fox's Pretentiousness makes a point that I, anxious about my own ethos vis-à-vis my copy-editor, didn't consider: that

to suggest a person is pretentious is to say they're behaving in ways they're not qualified for through experience or economic status. (43)
When people say you're pretentious, they mean you're getting ahead of or above yourself. Or possibly beside or below yourself – we place such store on toeing the exact right line through interests, knowledges, and tastes that if someone is not dead-center they're a snob in some direction: conventional or reverse or inside-out. When it comes to pretension, insult is always perceptible, even when it's couched as mentoring.

"There's an altogether more generous view of pretentiousness that understands the gap between expectation and actuality as a productive necessity rather than a flaw," says Fox (104). The idea is related to Pierre Bayard's contention that we only begin to have interesting conversations about books when we go beyond the ones we've supposedly read. "Fake it till you make it" is increasingly, in all seriousness, becoming a pedagogical best practice. We teach students, in David Bartholomae's famous phrase, to "invent the university": to assume the roles of experts provisionally, at a stretch from their established competence, so that they can vault into the ranks of the truly expert. Any academic apprenticeship is like this, which is why so many of us in the business suffer from "impostor syndrome." But what's the alternative – keeping your mouth shut and disavowing all knowledge till decades of eremitic reading has made you a true sage?

Dan Fox's book is partly about knowledge, but more about the presentation of self (through behavior, dress, and cultural taste) and the social-class implications of this presentation. His linguistic observations naturally intrigue me.

The moment a person opens their mouth, their accent conditions attraction, power, and trust. … In the US, accents are not assigned status values to quite the same degree as they are in Britain. … Nobody in the US cares how you speak if you're richer than Croesus. (35)
Or by extension how you dress or hold yourself, or what foods or music you prefer. Though of course that's a truism about the United States, and like all truisms only true to a degree. Class in Britain has long been hereditary and is still relatively indelible, so that early-acquired mannerisms of a class background too low (or indeed way too high) are shameful markers. Americans, more chameleon in class terms, may escape their inheritance or early nurture, but are faced with a wide range of adoptable pretensions, and errors in choice are not always easily mended with sheer money. And other English-speaking countries offer very different dynamics: Ireland is nothing like either the US or Britain in these matters (more egalitarian, more homogenous, but also far more withering about pretension, which always seems a betrayal of republican values). Canada would be different again, but I am a long way from understanding exactly how.

And in many ways the US and the UK are converging in how accents signal pretension (or its avoidance). Eleanor Roosevelt died when I was three years old, but virtually no one alive speaks with her accent, an accent once the aspiration of wannabe patrician public figures but simultaneously the butt of public ridicule, almost from the inception of radio and talking pictures. Many English people still speak in Received Pronunciation, the Queen's English – not least, the Queen herself – but the same process of ridicule, working far more slowly and with much more of an uphill battle, has inflected the accents of the prestigious steadily in the direction of "Estuary" and other homogenizing pronunciations, which take the insufferable edges off upper-crust accents and the rougher edges off working-class and regional ones, to produce a middle-ground register that sounds both educated and "real." This process has prevailed with far greater speed in the United States in what I call "airport English," the pan-regional dialect of our megacities, separated by great rural stretches where people still acquire the regional accents of their long-ago ancestors. Speak "airport English" and you sound a little Midwestern, a little Mid-Atlantic, a lot LAX – and you sound the same as your compatriots in DFW, ATL, RDU, DEN, and SLC.

A common Irish putdown is "it's far from that you were reared." When I listen to myself speak, I sometimes realize that it's far from anywhere I was reared. Some days I'll sound like I'm from downstate Illinois, some days from New York, some days I'm a melange of Irish, English, Southern, Appalachian, South Jersey, and upper-Midwest vowels and consonants and prosodies. I can be laid open to charges of pretentiousness because I'll pronounce some placename – Ystad, Bornholm, Budapest – the way I've heard it pronounced in the place itself, which isn't the way an American reading it off a map would pronounce it. Heck, going back and forth between New York and Texas, I misfire on "Houston Street" half the time and reveal myself as a native of nowhere. Sometimes my speech must seem the reverse of a chameleon's: I'll hear people talk and stake out some accent that contrasts with it – I dunno, it must unconsciously seem polite to me, as if I would mock them if I drifted into their vowels.

My food preferences, and my tastes in music and art and literature, are equally eclectic, and I am never sure whether they reflect my central person, or my attempts to pretend my way into a cultural circle, or perhaps (as with my shifting accent) my dogged tendency to set myself against the tastes of whoever I'm with. Much of Fox's Pretentiousness is about pop music, and much of it concerns anxieties over music that I don't remember ever hearing, so some of it is lost on me (and I'm getting too old to care whether I should be anxious about that). Here's an opportunity for me to play the pretentious card and say I only listen to classical music. And I do keep my car radio on the classical station, and in very recent years have become a fairly intense opera fan. But most of what I listen to are jazz standards and show tunes, and two of my favorite songs to play on my piano are "Blue Bayou" and "Save the Last Dance for Me," because each contains just four or five different notes.

Food is different: the palate may rebel against items too coarse (or too refined), but the stomach soon reduces them to chyme no matter what. We tend to see food pretensions in economic or intellectual terms. If you must grate Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese onto your pasta, you may simply have too much money; or you may feel that life is too short to grate domestic Asiago onto pasta. Or you may flinch at the idea of grated cheese on pasta anyway, and eat Parmesan only in thin shavings as a dessert cheese, or atop a salad. Or there may be something they do with cheese in Parma that I'll only experience if I betake myself there and learn from the hot young chefs or ancient grandmothers of the Po Valley. In a New York City Whole Foods, Fox says, he

once saw white asparagus described on the store label as "preferred by Europeans," as if to suggest that buying it would confer both nutritional value and an appreciation for some misty notion of European sophistication. (58)
Or possibly just to assure us that somebody, somewhere, would eat such a ghastly-looking thing. White asparagus, simply Spargel in Germany, where it's the unmarked kind, is a taste I think I've finally acquired, but one which, in the vast Spargel fields of Brandenburg in the springtime, looks anything but sophisticated. There seems a national imperative in Germany in May to eat Spargel at every meal, which I'm sure breeds its own connoisseurships, jadednesses, affectations, resistances, and fluctuating attitudes over an eating lifetime. Meanwhile, I am sure that in some trendy market stall in Berlin this summer, there will be green asparagus on sale with a note "preferred by Americans."

Fox, Dan. Pretentiousness: Why it matters. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 2016. NX 212 .F69