In Defense of Being a Pretentious Little S#$%

As someone who edits high schoolers’ writing in my spare time, I’ve read a lot of terrible teenage prose through the years. Pretension is the best-case scenario, indicative if nothing else of a lively imagination.
Publish date:
May 7, 2013
pretentiousness, college essays

“Intellect,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “is a fire—rash and pitiless it melts this wonderful bone-house which is called man.” If this is so, one could call me smoldering, fluid, molten, burning with a thousand curiosities, tugged about by an anarchy of ideas.

I am a writer, a reader, and a photographer. I am a grammarian, a classicist, a knitter, a collector of old maps and blank books, a debater, a baker, an Anglophile, an artist, and a conservative. I am a greedy hoarder of trivial knowledge. I have a grand dream of growing up to be a protectress of obscure languages, strange facts, and forgotten stories. I have red toenails.

So began the admissions essay that got me into Columbia University back in 2003. Reading it today, I want to chiffonade my brains out.

Jesus Christ. “Protectress?” And the line about red toenails, which I distinctly remember as stolen from a 5-year-old Avon commercial starring Florence Griffith-Joyner. My limbs are instinctively curling into the fetal position.

At the time I wrote that, however, I thought it was a magnum opus. If someone had leaked it onto the internet, I probably would have been balls-out proud, cheering “snaps for us!” like high school senior Noah Samotin did after his and 70+ other admitted Columbia students’ essays were leaked to Gawker and IvyGate last week.

Reading Noah’s defense, in which he calls himself a “cynical bastard” for some vaguely self-congratulatory reason, makes me want to breathe deeply into a paper bag. Ooooh, I bet he’s going to regret that in 10 years. But you know what? I also bet he’s going to be ridiculously successful.

As someone who edits high schoolers’ writing in my spare time, I’ve read a lot of terrible teenage prose through the years. College essays, in my experience, come in 3 varieties: pretentious, illiterate, or written by the parents. Most of them fall into column B.

Pretension is the best-case scenario, indicative if nothing else of a lively imagination. And if my friends’ lives are any indication, pretension appears to lurk in the past of almost every successful adult.

Take my friend Lilah,* now 25 and getting her JD at the University of Chicago. Lilah attended my high school, DC’s National Cathedral School for Girls, where she sang in the National Cathedral choir.

“Oh man, right up my alley with this one,” she wrote in response to my Gmail bat signal for stories. “I wrote [my college essay] about singing at Reagan’s funeral, and how noble I was for the fact that I wasn't allowing my distaste for his politics to affect my willingness to sing.”

She continued, “I really thought I was saying something profound. I really, really wasn't. The last line is:

We must be willing to talk to each other; to honor each other’s dead, and only then can we truly make progress. How can I bear to sing at Ronald Reagan’s funeral? By being open to the idea that a man can be great without agreeing with me."

I love you, Lilah.

Meanwhile, my friend Maud, 26, told me she began her personal statement with this simple one-liner from Oscar Wilde: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”

Maud doesn’t want me to share details of where she went to college or all the amazing things she’s done since, but rest assured: She is a genius.

And there’s my friend Lynne, 28, a classmate of mine at Columbia. “My personal essay was about the Manet painting ‘Le dejeuner sur l'herbe,’” she wrote to me. “I totally claimed that I was the naked woman, because I was so open to life and experiences, while [all the people] around me were the two clothed dudes, scared to let their vulnerabilities show.”

Lynne is now a high school English teacher. Reading the leaked Columbia essays on Jezebel last week filled her with dismay, but not for Noah and the other authors.

“The school where I teach is in a fairly low-income area,” she said. “Frankly, if any of those Columbia essays were turned in to my class, those students would receive an automatic A for the year. In terms of writing ability alone, they are so far above and beyond the writing I see on a daily basis that I can't even think of an appropriate metaphor.”

Which brings me to another important point about pretension: It doesn’t just signify imaginative capacity, it signifies privilege. (I’m not just talking about socioeconomic privilege, although one friend of mine did remind me of that cliché of all upper-middle-class clichés: the college essay describing one’s community service trip to Africa or the Caribbean.)

Kids who are pretentious have grown up around books. They’ve been allowed to indulge their intellectual curiosities, to be proud of their own ideas. Most importantly, they’ve been sheltered -- given the freedom to act their own age.

As Lynne reminded me in her email, teenagers are by nature intense.

“Right at this moment, I have a student sitting next to my desk writing an incident statement for our dean,” she told me. “What happened: she and her ex-girlfriend got in a verbal fight during lunch, during which she whacked her ex in the head with a plastic bag containing PE clothes. That's it. Her statement now appears to be on its fifth single-spaced, double sided notebook page (in pink pen). Seriously.”

Frankly, it’s sad for me to see a high school kid who’s not a little pretentious like little miss five-pager. Self-satisfaction is adolescence’s consolation prize. So much about that time of life is terrible; why knock teenagers for possessing one of the few things that isn’t?

As my friend Lilah says: “When you have ideas in high school, particularly intellectual ideas, or moral intuitions, it's the very first time you've ever thought about those things! And they feel like a fucking ray of perfect knowledge being beamed into your head: and only your head.”

I for one miss that sense of intellectual confidence. And as a literary agent, I wish that more competent adults had it today.

When I speak at writers’ conferences, I like to say that the published authors I know are not necessarily the most talented. They’re the Noah Samotins of the world: the ones who, regardless of innate talent, believe that their work is just a little more special than everyone else’s and that their ideas are just a little more original.

Of course, it takes a lot more than self-esteem to get your writing published, but unless you’re at least slightly demented with self-confidence, you don’t have a chance. As teenagers, most of us have it. As adults, most of us don’t.

My 29-year-old friend Rose, an Oxford graduate, wrote to me of how she sometimes tears up thinking of the passionate writer she used to be. “Maybe what I would write now is better for being more self conscious and tempered and aware of others. But I think there's definitely something sad about the loss of that intensity and passion.”

I agree. Most of us won't do amazing things with our lives. A few, however, will. And I guarantee you they won’t be the people snarking about “special little snowflakes” and “obnoxious little shits” who write imagined dialogues between themselves and Oscar Hammerstein. They’ll be the people who hear such insults and don’t care.

*Names have been changed