06 April 2008

Academic Pretension

Fun Home
Alison Bechdel

I was mildly puzzled in class on Monday to hear one of my classmates accuse Alison Bechdel of academic pretension in the writing of Fun Home. This wasn't because she used long, complicated sentences or went off on lengthy discussions of obscure topics for no reason or anything else that I would think of as pretentious. It was because Fun Home was filled with literary references, including references to what some might refer to as "great" works of literature. James Joyce's Ulysses, for example, or the novels of Marcel Proust, or the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus.

Now, this accusation puzzles me because it implies something unpleasant and unfair and unnecessarily restrictive to authors. Maybe the average person off the street, picking up a copy of Fun Home and flipping through it, won't get every single literary reference. But hey, that's ok. Bechdel explains many of them, and what a reader doesn't get, he or she can look up. It shouldn't really be an imposition to ask someone to hop on the computer and search Wikipedia or something. Also, though, saying that making literary references is pretentious places a restriction on authors that they shouldn't have.

True, some people use fancy language and refer to famous books because they want to look smarter. But reading Fun Home, it seemed to me like Alison Bechdel made these references because literature was what interested her. Referencing something because you enjoy and because you feel it's a good comparison is not the same as referencing something so that you can look down on people who don't understand you.

From the depictions of some of the more irritating professors and students at her college, in fact, Bechdel seems to despise that kind of behaviour herself. It's rude to look down on people because they know less than you. If someone doesn't understand something, one should explain it, not be snooty. Snootiness just makes people less inclined to want to learn things.

Anyway, I was also puzzled because making literary references seemed entirely appropriate in the context of the story. Literature was obviously important to Bechdel's father, and it's something you get to see them connecting over throughout the course of the story. Given that this is, indeed, a story about Bechdel's father, it's only right to pepper it with the things he liked best.

No comments: