Culture //

Before there was tinder

Janek Drevikovsky (M, 21) WLTM reader, intelligent and open-minded, for article on personal ads.

So you’re a quirky millennial. A literary type, burdened by self-doubt and that novel you’ve been planning—or would have been planning, except that cat videos require so much of your time. You’re not big on romance, and you ‘ironically’ watch The Bachelor. Tinder is a joke, because otherwise it would be terrifying. Your bio is a piss-take (that’s why you don’t get matches), and maybe you’ll delete your account soon. Maybe you’ll delete Facebook too. Maybe you’ll sell your phone and buy a kikki.k journal. Oops, you already have six.

Whatever you do, don’t buy a copy of the London Review of Books (LRB). Do not open to the classified page. Do not read the personal ads. Because you will realise that your way of life, every ironic thing you strive to be, has already been perfected. By people who don’t use the internet. Who outdo you by light-years in cultural skepticism, intellectual anxiety and hidden earnestness. They fumble into quixotic love-quests, laying their hearts bare in a printed column of 30-word adverts. Take this Casanova for example:

Normally on the first few dates I borrow mannerisms from the more interesting people I know and very often steal phrases and anecdotes from them along with concepts and ideas from obscure yet wittily-written books. It makes me appear more attractive and personable than I actually am. With you, however, I’m going to be a belligerent old shit from the very beginning. That’s because I like you and feel ready to give you honesty. Belligerent old shit (M, 53). Box no. 6378.

Some highlights from last week's LRBThe LRB has run personal ads since 1998, but the phenomenon dates to the 19th century. These ads work a bit like Tinder, only slower. You post an ad if you’re lonely or horny or a combination of the two. Someone writes back, sending a letter to your forwarding box. You become pen pals, exchange photos, maybe you meet up. You end up regretting everything.

In most publications, personal ads have a lifeless choreography. Men are “well-built”, women, “seductive”. Eyes “sparkle”, smiles are “radiant”. Walks are “long” and invariably “on the beach”. Dinners are “candlelit”. These are tired charades, prescribed by gender norms and beauty standards.

The result is as you’d expect: as LRB advertising editor David Rose points out, the main complaint received by personal columns is that, in person, ad-posters don’t live up to their self-description.

But in the LRB, this isn’t an issue. Everyone has already suffered all the disappointment life can offer: weedy academics, depressive publishers, overweight historians and decrepit geriatrics — weary bookish types who are used to the world not measuring up to the perfection of literary fiction. Certainly no time for six-packs or waists:

I’ll see you at the LRB singles night. I’ll be the one breathing heavily and stroking my thighs by the ‘art’ books. Asthmatic, varicosed F (93) seeks M to 30 with enough puff in him to push me uphill to the post office. This is not a euphemism. Box no 4632.

That is an honesty absent from most personal columns. In fact, at many newspapers, the personals are not written by the ad-poster at all. Lonely hearts fill in a questionnaire, detailing their attributes. Then an ad agency weaves those attributes into a string of beige adjectives, designed to get someone to take their trousers off in the same room as you.

The LRB is above this. Each ad is art, and the ad posters are writers. Some call Rose, the personals’ curator, dozens of times to discuss the wording of their ad. It has to be witty, literary, well-written, because the LRB’s readership are the most self-important criterati on the planet. The stakes are high, but the result still better than your blogspot:

An ancient Czech legend says that any usurper who places the Crown of Saint Wenceslas on his head is doomed to die within a year. During World War II, Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of the puppet Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, secretly wore the crown believing himself to be a great king. He was assassinated less than a year later by the Czech resistance. I have many more stories like this one. I will tell you them all and we will make love. Man, 47. Box no. 6889.

Some standouts from the LRB's back catalogue

There is intrigue in this literary levity. Minds can meet, thrust together in the halls of the English canon, trading witticisms and bodily fluids. Like when your Tinder match is also a fan of that awful indie band you like. In fact, an anonymous LRB old hand said he answered ads precisely to unravel their mysteries. He ending up meeting three different advertisers, though the literary games were at times underwhelming. One advertiser, this old hand said, “was a bit of a sham, punching a little above his cultural weight if he was advertising in a LITERARY journal”.

Ultimately though, these are gentle, very weird souls, hoping for a moment of collision as they travel alone through the dark void. Which means it’s all about sex. Hopefully good, literary sex—angsty like Kierkegaard, detached like Foster-Wallace, but, like Tolstoy, rubbing all the right spots and lasting forever. And if sex doesn’t happen, then the LRB advertisers can always claim it was a glorious, literary joke to begin with. Just like a deflective quirky Tinder bio.

Sexually, I’m more of a Switzerland.

Sex or no sex, literary game or cri de coeur, the LRB personals know one thing. They’ve been doing this ironic, self-conscious and quirky dating-by-correspondence thing a lot longer than Tinder has been around. And they’re much better at it than you. Oh how they laugh from their ivory towers.

OMG! This magazine is the shizz. Seriously, dudes. Awesome! LOL! Classics lecturer (M, 48). Possibly out of his depth with today’s youth. KTHX! Box no. 2680.