This is a word that I typically loathe. "Pretentious" is most often used to describe "something that seems intellectual and that I don't understand, and must therefore be bad." It's often used in conjunction with "elitist."
But the thing about the word "pretentious" is that is indicates pretense, or even pretending, that someone or something is pretending to be smarter, more intelligent, more sophisticated than they really are. If we take that specific sense of the word, then, pretentious is always at some level both completely true, and never true. If we limit our understanding of the word to works of art, in this case, a novel, ambitious texts are always aspiring to be something more than the author has already mastered, aspiring to achieve something with this text that the author has not achieved before. In this way, pretense is always built into art. But the other side of aspiring is not achieving such a goal--that the novel is trying to be intellectual, but never reaches those aspirations. And in this case, any text or artwork that visibly aspires to an ambitious goal is already accomplishing something more than the conventional. It may not accomplish it perfectly, but a text's very aspiration to accomplish more than convention asks its reader to reconsider the conventions themselves.
So a pretentious novel--typically one that is trying to be intellectual, or experimental, or artistically ambitious in some way, but failing--is to me a terrible label, because it both dishonors the ambition itself, even as it misrecognizes the way that an aesthetic of failure is itself sometimes an artistically valid process. That label also, typically, fails to acknowledge that the fault may be readerly.
And yet, I have just read a novel (I won't name names here) that nonetheless feels pretentious. In his infamous and oft misinterpreted essay "The Literature of Exhaustion," John Barth identifies to vectors for categorizing literature--something like artistic integrity and something like up-to-date technique. And for him, too much of what we've now come to call postmodern literature feels technically up-to-date, but artistically bankrupt. This novel feels something like that, but not entirely. There is, at its heart, an artistic project, one that seems to invoke Calvino and Barth and a kind of pure literary surrealism (anyone ever read Sedagh Hedayat's The Blind Owl?). But it is also precious in its deployment of about half of its tricks: character names feel intentionally contrived; instead of pages, paragraphs are numbered; a series of hand-drawings and one-inch black dots occasionally populate and punctuate the pages (the hand-drawings are at least functional--I cannot fathom the dots).
I recognize, to a point, that I may in fact not be getting it all--indeed, much of the novel has come into focus after letting it sink in for a day. But enough of it remains not only incomprehensible, but self-consciously and cleverly incomprehensible, that the novel itself seems to be pretending that it is more than it is, and in this case, it would be more, if there were less.
I am no minimalist--I take as first evidence of my hatred of James Wood's literary criticism that he derides Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie as the most "theatrical" of writers. But the excess here seems purposeless, and ultimately, pretentious.
I'm off to read some Appalachian fiction that I know is neither pretentious not pretense. I wonder how I'll feel about this last one after this next one.