Literary dating

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.

9 thoughts on “Literary dating

  1. I NEVER read reviews of books and had no idea they had personal ads. Maybe it’s my cultural background, but I do not think keen readers actually read reviews of books (excluding the professionals like of course – this includes you, Andrew). So it is not keen readers who have difficulties in communication, but readers of book reviews.

    I would add that serious readers may be the last people to advertise in any personal ads – they are too serious for that. Which leaves the field to odd types.


  2. Boris: Indeed, NYRB and the LRB subscribers are very serious readers or, at least, wannabe serious readers. NYRB and LRB reviews are more than standard reviews: they often cover more than one book at a time, examine complementary and contradictory themes often in light of current events, and are written by serious academics (e.g. Harold Bloom) and writers (e.g. John Coetzee). Both publications are major arbiters in the literary community.

    More generally, I agree that limited social circles and problems associated with solitary activities are good explanations. I


  3. Healthy but not wealthy middle-aged man seeks nubile lover of learning for clandestine meetings in the Fisher Library stacks with a view of walking on the beach, sunrises and listening to music together. Would help to have classical liberal/libertarian tendencies, own car and complete set of Bob Dylan records or Goon Show scripts.


  4. This one looked promising but it was in the next category of notices.

    Publisher’s editor with fifteen years’ fiction and non-fiction experience, for clients including HarperCollins and Random House, and former literature specialist for Arts Council England, offers first-rate editorial services, including editing, copy-editing, proofreading, manuscript appraisal and submissions advice. Non-fiction expertise includes biography, current affairs, history, memoirs, politics and travel.


  5. Tanya – With my general aversion to 20th century French intellectual life, I have not read Bourdieu. But I probably should add Distinction to my reading list.

    I think you are right about the different dating strategies. I’ve known women who seem to regard the choice of boyfriend in much the same way they would regard the choice of a handbag; he/it has to look ok and serve its intended purpose, but there are a large number of possibilities in the acceptable range since nothing unusual is required.

    But for women with more sophisticated tastes, I think this is tough – I wrote a paper on their poor marital prospects a few years ago (in the context of a debate on whether HECS affected fertility). Not only do educated women outnumber educated men in the younger age groups, but many of the guys who do fit the rough profile they are after seem quite happy to ‘marry down’ , choosing women who are physically attractive but not particularly intelligent.


  6. Hi Andrew – Can you provide a link to your paper on HECS and upmarket women’s marital prospects? Sounds interesting.
    Ta, Tom


  7. Tom – This Catallaxy post has the link, along with a link to another paper on HECS and fertility which with HILDA data backs my case more convincingly than I could with the data available in 2003.

    Interestingly, one of the 19th century arguments against letting women into university was that it would diminish their marital prospects. On that at least, they were right.


  8. Dare I suggest that – for some women – university education diminishes interest in marriage, or at least, some types of marriages? Perhaps underneath the concerns of those men who argued against women entering, for instance, U of M’s medical program, were deep concerns about whether women graduates would find the majority of men as interesting. There’s quite a difference between thinking of this situation in terms of prospects or in terms of interests. Yes, most university-educated women want to live in committed relationships, but they set reletively high standards (intellectual as much as economic) on the type of relationship to which they are prepared to commit. They are interested but in a highly conditional way.



  9. Rafe: I have a few suggestions for the revision of your ad.

    Firstly, think about your potential market. Being a middle-aged man seeking a nubile woman places you in a market with very large unmet demand. Middle-aged academic males should keep their false consciousness in check: 20-something year old female students are only interested in them for one thing, and it sadly what male academics would like it to be. (I know that years ago things were a bit different but things have never been the same since those jealous academic feminazis invaded the campus.) Furthermore, by


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