Vigilance versus Receptivity; Pretense versus Pretend. (With some Mystic Pizza and mystery novels thrown in)

I got so carried away by country music lyrics last time that I neglected what I’d sat down to address: the relief of un-pretension in books. By which I suppose I just mean: honesty. The etymology of ‘pretension’ backs me up on this. Joseph T. Shipley (an etymologist I am newly obsessed with, thanks to stumbling across his Dictionary of Word Origins in a second-hand bookstore) traces pretension to the Latin tenere, to hold, and pretend “to stretch forth, to hold before–as a defense–as a claim, then with emphasis on its falsity.”

Fascinating! My aversion to pretentiousness is indeed a distaste for ‘pretending,’ or at least for sensing ‘pretense’ being deployed in a defensive manner by the artist. And that image of something being held before or stretched forth, and the gulf created, is precisely the sadness of distance I feel when I encounter work that strikes me as pretentious. But pretentiousness is in the eye of the beholder. A bar I consider stuffy might be your Cheers. And there’s an intriguing question about the distinction between the necessary act of ‘pretend’ in fiction and the dismay of reading “dishonest” fiction. This also makes me want to talk about improv, but I’ll hold off on that for now, along with a discussion of Improv Nation, which is so so so good!

Back to honesty! Good genre fiction often achieves this honesty in a manner both surprising and soothing. I recently read Donna Leon’s The Golden Egg. I love Leon for her atmospherics, police interrogations as dialogue study (Le Carre also excells at this) and her occasional swerve into non-sentences. Take this passage:

Brunetti was content to stand and watch the buildings and the light, entranced, as he so often was, by the casual, unending beauty of it. Stone, sky, gold, marble, space, proportion, chaos, disorder, glory.

They glided to the dock. Foa switched off the engine and tossed the mooring rope effortlessly over the stanchion, jumped to the dock and held out a hand to Brunetti. It was the second time that day the younger man had offered him a hand: Brunetti put his lightly on the outstretched arm and jumped to the riva.

You’ve got to love a sudden list-as-sentence, drooling about Venice architecture, in a suspense story. And I admire the second paragraph just as much. Sure you could gripe about adverbs, but the quiet moment between the two men is so simple and true. Sometimes I wonder about effort and honesty. Of course Leon puts immense care into her sentences and her graceful, stick-the-landing plots. But I sense a freedom in her language that seems to offer its characters a freedom, too.

I really enjoy movies that achieve this. You can’t call them high art, but they feel real, and they escape the airlessness of perfect execution. Last Sunday, I watched Mystic Pizza, an 80s movie with a young Julia Roberts, Annabeth Gish, and Lili Taylor (I had read Taylor on her favorite poets and felt like watching her onscreen). It has its cheesiness (ha!) but so does life. I often think about Eudora Welty, defending using cliché in fictional dialogue, because people often speak in cliché.

I’ll end with a quote from Lili Taylor that I just stumbled across after a conversation she had with her friend, the poet Marie Howe.

“I used to try so hard to understand a poem. I was being vigilant instead of receptive.”

What a great distinction! I think this holds just as true for writing as it does for reading. And gets us back to the danger of “pretense” as a defense mechanism, vs. the deep joy of falling into “pretend.” I’m intrigued, too, by the emotional difference between vigilance and noticing.

My dad always said the best basketball offense is a good defense. But in writing, the best offense requires being, and staying, open.


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