In advertising, puffery refers to exaggerated claims that are so subjective that they cannot be proven or statistically verified. Most of us consumers are savvy enough to not take seriously claims like “the freshest ingredients,” “best pizza in town,” and “world-class service.” These statements are examples of advertising puffery. There’s a fine line between puffery and false advertising, but it’s easy for most of us non-elves to know the difference.
Students who write literary analysis are often guilty of another kind of puffery. It usually looks something like this:
- William Shakespeare, the greatest of all English dramatists, wrote Hamlet in or around 1600.
- Paradise Lost, Milton’s undisputed masterpiece, presents an epic portrayal of the biblical fall of man.
- No one will ever match Dicken’s talent for casting uniquely memorable characters.
Just like the claims of advertisers, literary puffery makes unsubstantiated and subjective claims about an author or a work of literature. This kind of thing is sometimes permissible in the published writings of critics and literary scholars who are presenting their educated opinion. The opinions of renowned experts like Harold Bloom or H.L. Mencken carry weight.
But that’s not true about your average 16-year-old high school sophomore. Frankly, nobody cares what he thinks about the relative greatness of Byron or Hemingway. And that’s why you should avoid giving exaggerated opinions in your literature papers.
That’s not to say a student’s opinion of a particular work of poetry isn’t valid. As long as he can point to evidence in the text, it’s fine to suggest a new or controversial way of understanding a poem. He can even feel free to criticize a highly regarded work of literature — as long as he can back it up. Saying that the speaker in “The Road Not Taken” really regrets taking the road less traveled by is fine, as long as you point to the parts of the poem that can reasonably support that idea. Puffery isn’t wrong because it’s an opinion. It’s wrong because it’s unsupportable.
When writing about literature, stick to what you know and what you can defend. Avoid sweeping statements that are beyond the scope of the book or poem you are discussing. It’s not necessary to discuss the influence of a writer, the brilliance of a novel, or the greatness of a poem. The average (or even the above-average) student doesn’t have the knowledge or expertise to make those kinds of claims.
Professional athletes often talk about playing “within themselves,” meaning they understand their limitations and stick to what they do best. Young literary writers should do the same thing. Stay small. Talk about what you see and understand in a particular work. Avoid puffery and write within yourself.
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