People who presume, not entirely unreasonably, that “literary fiction” represents a value judgment, fail to understand that “literary fiction” is just a marketing category (coined in the 1970’s by publishing and book retailers) characterized by slower pacing, stylized prose, introspection and a focus on interior life over exterior action, a focus on character over plot. What they are not, though, are inherent markers of quality.

A lot of modern literature is nothing more than some anti-intellectual word salad: incoherent ramblings of some over-educated academics using words like, “deconstruct, chiasmus, allusions, doppelganger, and hubris”. The result is sometimes an endless exercise in rhetorical peacocking, a participation in a general conspiracy of mutually displayed approvals. The chaotic and pointless storytelling that has besieged modern literature  has no other function or purpose then to signal who is in and who is out.

A good pseudo-intellectual knows how to give off an air of erudition without having to put forth too much of an effort. A big part of that is knowing what books to carry around and display in public. For those of you smart enough to want to appear smart, below I’ve provided a couple of novels to be seen with. Bonus points if you are seen actually READING them, but don’t feel compelled to do so – it can be seen as pretentious.

  • Finnegan’s Wake; the incoherent ramblings of a lunatic who spent 17 years of his life to make his prose as incomprehensible as possible. Those who’re criticizing it are morons with not enough brainpower to understand Joyce’s attempt to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams.
  • The Brothers Karamazov; literary masterpiece by Fyodor Dostoevsky that spreads the lives of three Russian brothers over 824 pages. Although Dostoevsky makes fun of the “clever people” who jump from one popular idea to another without caring about the truth, all kinds of intellectuals believe it is the greatest book in all literature.
  • Atlas Shrugged; Rand’s impact on contemporary libertarian thought has been considerable and often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. In the animated comedy Futurama, it appears among the library of books flushed down to the sewers to be read only by grotesque mutants.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; a fictional autobiography in which Robert M. Pirsig rightfully questions the place of logic as the absolute criterion for the validity of an argument in order to replace it with an even shakier Metaphysics of Quality. It’s completely in line with the contemporary tendency toward solitary thought and over-analysis, while avoiding the problems in front of you.
  • This list is far from complete, but feel free to contribute or comment to it …

14 thoughts on “Pseudo-intellectualism in Modern Literature.

  1. I are not smart enough to brain these books… I am a slow reader, and I prefer a more simple language. Of course, I read sci-fi and fantasy versus modern fiction/literature. While I don’t mind seeing “advanced vocabulary” when it is warranted, I don’t see a constant need to use “high-dollar” words where a “cheaper” one will do. Still, though, art… good art… is in the eye of the beholder.

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    1. The true enemy of the assimilation of substantive ideas isn’t the middlebrow person but the pseudo-intellectual or the “intellectual” — for anyone who describes himself as an “intellectual” (to say nothing of a “public intellectual”) already implies the “pseudo” by the very act of such self-description. You know the type — perhaps he has an exaggerated “European accent” of unidentifiable Germanic origin, perhaps he quotes Voltaire excessively, perhaps he slips one too many French words into ordinary speech where a perfectly good English option exists.

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      1. Heeeeey…. I actually liked the Brothers Karamazov. And does the French thing count if I mostly use it to say dirty things?

        I get what your saying, and people who try to argue that “literary fiction” isn’t itself a genre, with its own tropes and downright overplayed clichés (is that too French for you?) are patently wrong, but I also think it’s important not to be too reactionary and just hate a thing because it’s perceived as being too commercial/intellectual. Reverse snobbery is just trading one group-think for another, and we should strive to form more independent opinions.

        On the other hand, I’ve never met a well-adjusted human being that got half-way through Finnegan’s Wake and didn’t want to use it as kindling for a dumpster fire, so there is that.


      2. Admirers of the brother Karamazov include scientists such as Albert Einstein, philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, as well as writers such as Virginia Woolf, Cormac McCarthy, Kurt Vonnegut, Haruki Murakami, and Frederick Buechner. If you’ve actually been reading this book and not just the blurb, you’re in good company.
        A good English word for cliché is a platitude, but I must admit I’m also using it.
        And I have nothing against a book whom’s plot or character dept goes beyond the contemporary standards for a best seller. It’s just not going to become a best seller.
        My favorite Finnegan’s Wake anecdote?
        On Good Friday in the year 1938, the writer Jacques Mercanton paid a call on his friend James Joyce. He found the author deep in
        conference with lit scholar Stuart Gilbert—Joyce was disturbed that a passage in Finnegan’s Wake was “still not obscure enough.” The solution: Joyce decided to add some words from the language of the Siberian Samoyed.

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      3. I try not to concern myself too much with the likes of who likes what… we all appreciate art for different reasons. I once had a friend tell me, “If a stupid person likes something, I lose interest in it” to my mind, that just ends up being a way to allow stupid people to have control over your life.

        And on the other hand, being in good company doesn’t say much about me, really. I’m certainly no Einstein. Lol.

        If that Finnegan’s Wake story is true that is some genius-level trolling on Joyce’s part. Do you know if it made it in?

        I watched a college-roommate pull their hair out reading that book, I had to be ready to dodge it at any moment because it would fly across the room at random intervals after being thrown in frustration. I’ve never had the courage to actually try to read it.

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      4. Having repeated this language anecdote, Joyce’s list of the languages used in Finnegan’s Wake doesn’t include Samoyed, or any of its variants. But it does include English, Irish, Norwegian, Latin, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Esperanto, Volapuk, Novial, Flemish, French, Italian, Burmese, Basque, Welsh, Roumansch, Dutch, German, Russian, Breton, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Kisuaheli, Swedish, Spanish, Persian, Rumanian, Lithuanian, Malay, Finnish, Albanian, Icelandic, Portuguese, Czech, Turkish, Polish, and Ruthenian.

        But here’s a sentence:

        Evilling chimbes is smutsick rivulverblott but thee hard casted thereass pigstenes upann Congan’s shootsmen in Schottenhof, ekeascent?

        Are you having a life’s-too-short moment?

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  2. Hah! The enemy, however, is not directly the pseudo-intellectuals themselves. Instead, it is what seems to be a growing social problem where people accept them as the smart ones simply because they make the most noise. A lack of critical thinking, in my opinion, is the issue with the cause being this mindset that the ones that cause the most disruption and create the most drama get what they want. Nobody stands up and challenges them. It would not be “cool”…

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    1. If I would have a choice, I would rather read neither, but indeed, when my options would have been boiled down to a choice between those two, I would also rather go for Dostoevsky. Both have a rather pessimist view upon human nature but Dostoevsky at least doesn’t use Proust’s pedant pedagogical writing style.

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  3. Absolutely agree with you on literary fiction. The same goes for the term “modern classic”. I once talked about books I think will be future classics on my blog and I seem to remember a few people saying a couple of my suggestions didn’t count cos they’re already classed modern classics- but the thing is a publisher slapping a label on a book does not make it so. I wouldn’t even call it a value judgement, cos like you said, it’s just a marketing ploy. I’m afraid I do like Dostoevsky though- but I personally don’t feel he tries to obscure any of the things he’s discussing- he’s often just trying to run through the ideas himself and try and figure them out. to me, his books are interesting thought experiments (eg crime and punishment is a discussion of whether you can ever justifiably murder someone… spoiler alert, you can’t 😉 ) But to each their own (rand for instance makes me want to stick my head through a wall 😉 )


    1. The only Russian authors who’s protagonists don’t make me feel like climbing up the walls are Tolstoy and Pasternak. I have mixed feelings about Bulgakov. It’s just that lot’s of people brag about Dostoevsky and never went further than the blurb, just use his books as a casually displayed paper press to induce awe in their visitors. Out of a literary point of view, they’re all icons on their own right.

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