Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How to pretend to be intelligent

Obfuscation is power!
Tom Raabe, Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction

Tom Raabe is being a little facetious, but only a little. In his witty book Biblioholism, Raabe argues it's not enough just to own a lot of books. "You must be able to talk about them with a reasonable similtude to intelligence," he says. In other words, when discussing literature, it's not important that you actually be intelligent as long as you sound intelligent. Thus, obfuscation is power.

He offers what he calls the "Impenetrability Phrase Finder" to aid his readers in sounding intelligent when talking about books. You take, at random, one word from column one, one from column two and one from column three. String them together and you get phrases like "sentimentalized epiphanical verisimiltude" and "bourgeois neoclassical textuality" that sound like they might actually mean something. They also sound like complete nonsense, but what listeners are going to dare question them? To do so would be to admit that they don't understand what you are saying. They aren't likely to take that risk.

Do you remember Professor Irwin Corey, a comedian whose heyday was the 1960s and '70s? Pretending to be an authority on everything, Corey would say things like, "... we all know that protocol takes precedence over procedures. This Paul Lindsey point of order based on the state of inertia of developing a centrifugal force issued as a catalyst rather than as a catalytic agent, and hastens a change reaction and remains an indigenous brier to its inception. This is a focal point used as a tangent so the bile is excreted through the panaceas."

Professor Corey, who as far as I know is still alive although he is nearly 100 years old, has a website ( that is worth checking out. Corey's routines satirize those pompous types who use big words to sound more intelligent than they really are.

Obfuscation can be used not just by those who talk and write about books but also by those who write them. In a book called A Reader's Manifesto, B.R. Myers rails against writers like Annie Proulx, Paul Auster and Cormac McCarthy who, like Irwin Corey, string together a lot of nonsensical words and metaphors to make themselves sound more intelligent than they really are. These are some of the writers most praised by literary critics, who, Myers says, don't want to admit they don't understand what they are reading.

In the back of his book, Myers suggests "Ten Rules for 'Serious' Writers," which work something like Tom Raabe's "Impenetrability Phrase Finder." Follow these rules and your audience will think you are more intelligent than you really are. Among the rules are Mystify, Keep Sentences Long, Pile on the Imagery, Bore and Play the Part. Why bore your readers? Because if they are enjoying themselves, they will assume you can't be very good. And if they understand what you are saying, they will assume you must not be very intelligent.

These are the writers who win the big prizes and get the rave reviews, even though they have relatively few readers. But many of them have secure jobs teaching creative writing at prestigious universities, so you might say, "Obfuscation is power!"

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