In possibly the first ever book made of up of reprinted classified advertising, the London Review of Books is publishing a collection of its personals ads. Personals have long been a feature of The New York Review of Books, and over the last few months Australian Book Review has been trying to imitate the northern book magazines.
I can see why The New York Review of Books had such success with its personals classifieds. If books are your main interest in life, meeting possible partners can be hard. Not only is reading an inherently solitary activity, even reading the same book separately can be rare. Serious readers tend to take the bestseller lists as a guide to what not to read, on the grounds that what’s appealing to the masses can’t be much good. But this attitude sacrifices their opportunity to at least have something to talk about when they do meet other readers.
Personals columns in literary publications are an attempt to get around these problems. A friend of mine once considered putting an ad in The New York Review of Books even though he knew it sold few copies in Australia, because he thought it might help him find a girl with the right book collection. A NYRB ad would reach a small but well-targeted audience.
But as the examples from the London Review of Books James Button quotes in The Age this morning suggest, it’s not clear that its advertisers are always serious:
“Bald, short, fat and ugly male, 53, seeks short-sighted woman with tremendous sexual appetite.” Or: “Bastard. Complete and utter. Whatever you do, don’t reply – you’ll only regret it. Man, 38.”
There was the woman, 24, who admitted she “inherited her mother’s unreasonable and utterly unfounded nostalgia (and her father’s hirsute back)”. Perhaps she found love – or at least a follicly endowed frolic – with the man who introduced himself as a “hairy-backed Wiltshire troll”.
The ads currently online at the LRB show that Button’s examples aren’t unusually outrageous. They fit right into the mainstream, if such unappealing people can ever be described that way. In years of occasionally reading the LRB personals I’ve had some amusement, but never I think come across anyone I would want to meet, much less spend the rest of my life with.
Button puts this strange stuff down to English character:
How very English they all sound. Clever, diffident, seemingly modest, given to gloom, and probably not as good at making love as at making laughter. As one LRB personal advertiser put it: “Romance is dead. So is my mother. Man, 42, inherited wealth.”
I say seemingly modest, because the English are as interested in self-promotion as anyone else. But as anthropologist Kate Fox shows in her book Watching the English, one must boast modestly – to the point of putting oneself down. It is for others to graciously contradict.
Self-deprecation … is an iron law of the national character. It must be obeyed, even in advertising, which in most countries is built on boasting…
There is certainly a contrast with the relentlessly upbeat ads in the NYRB, as the editor of the LRB book notes. But these ads go well beyond the attractive English propensity for understatement and self-deprecation and into self-degradation. Given the often far-left political views published in the LRB, perhaps these miserable ads reflect the unhappiness of lefties.
It’s a little bit hard at this stage to say what the ABR ads might say about Australians, as there have been so few. But the early signs suggest that its readers have an unfortunate resemblance to LRB readers, eg
Housekeeper wanted to work for free in exchange for supervision by dominatrix with a very nasty temper. Must be willing to cop a tongue-lashing in response to bad behaviour, and to work very, very hard. Floors must be scrubbed with a toothbrush on hands and knees. I am an exacting mistress, so only serious applicants need apply. Replies to Box no. 284/05
Perhaps I have the causation in the reading and dating problem the wrong way around – it’s not that reading makes it hard to meet people with common interests, it’s that people who have no idea of how to interact with others end up spending their solitary evenings with a book.