Letters

A crowd of readers -- both the listless and the angry -- respond to Rebecca Traister's "Attack of the Listless Lads."



Salon Staff
September 20, 2005 9:22PM (UTC)

[Read the article here.]

Rebecca, for what it's worth I'd counsel patience. We privileged kids born after man walked on the moon grew up being told -- and believing -- that there was nothing we couldn't accomplish if we put our minds to it, that we should find our passion and pursue it. Because we were privileged, we managed to get all the way into our mid-20s believing that this was all it would take. Then, with an unpublished novel or several unfinished screenplays, or a stack of unsold paintings, or just a job that we could care less about, it occurred to us that this thing might be harder than we'd imagined. I don't want to say our parents lied to us -- they were only trying to help -- but they were flying high in the '80s, and they didn't have our expectations to begin with, and so it's understandable if it didn't occur to them that the road might be rockier for us. Now we're just regrouping. We may appear to be sitting on the couch listlessly eating potato chips, but the wheels are spinning full-speed inside. It may take us a few years to translate that into decisive action, but we will recover from the shock of reality, and we will find something to do with ourselves that will allow us to love ourselves again. And then, I think, we will be ready to love you.

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-- J. Resnick

I am a 31-year-old single male living in Boston. I believe Rebecca Traister's problem with what she sees as today's male can be identified at the beginning of her article when she states that this "crisis" is "one that seems especially, but not exclusively, to afflict the young, urban and privileged." I wonder if Ms. Traister has ever dated a man who makes less than $50,000 a year.

I consider myself to be a passionate guy, with interests other than just to be able "to achieve libidinal expenditure relatively frequently," to quote Benjamin Kunkel. But, is this guy saying that we are not worthy of a woman because we do not make nearly as much as she does? Or are the unworthy ones those men that the article is focused on, the privileged? Because if it's the latter perhaps a sexual strike would benefit those of us who can't afford a vagina as expensive as Ms. Traister's.

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-- Mark Umstot

Single people are full of complicated theories. Especially in New York City. Before I met my wife, I spouted all kinds of nonsense about women and men and my generation (I'm 30) and whether my failure to meet the right woman was extrinsic or intrinsic and so on and so forth. Then I met my wife in, of all places, a Manhattan bar. We both knew pretty quickly we were meant to be together; now we can't imagine life without each other.

The point is, all relationships fail until, if you're lucky, you hit the one that doesn't. Until that time comes, you pontificate and hypothesize and bloviate and revel in articles like this one.

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But even in New York, happy couples are coming together all the time. And once they do, all the theory talk reveals itself as what it was: just so much comfort to get you through the tough nights. Best of luck to Ms. Traister.

-- Sam Bonderoff

The reason for male ambivalence is simple -- free Internet porn.

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-- Bob Dobalina

And here we go with yet another "what's wrong with men that they don't want me" article. I had a hard time reading the piece as I was struggling not to jam a pen in my eye. For the love of God, woman, let it go. There's nothing wrong with men. Perhaps the problem is that you think these men have a problem, and don't mind telling them. Who'd want to sign up for that anyway?

-- Laurie McGuinness

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I'd agree with many of the points raised in your "Listless Lads" piece, and add that men have too many easy distractions that might seem to them almost as good as a relationship with a woman, and far less work.

Why cultivate a charming, impassioned persona when you can wank over 20 different women's gaping crotches a day via the Internet? Why make the great efforts and embrace the sacrifices involved in forging a relationship with a woman when you can guiltlessly kill dozens of people and crash a wide selection of vehicles at will, all night and for free at your computer? Why engage a woman on an intimate level and risk revealing all you never had the chance to learn and wear with pride in the first place, when you know that the political correctness to which your educational institutions subjected you has taught you to suppress your instincts, restrain your opinions, and be a meek, compliant, spiritless dolt, or risk outcast status? Lots of men in the big cities are only being what they've been trained, at the behest of feminists and liberals, to be.

Don't forget, too, that from the standpoint of even smart, well-rounded bachelors, modern women are harder work than ever. Women always were an unfathomable puzzle. But now they're like men -- narcissistic, selfish, demanding, neurotic, image-obsessed, ego-driven, attention-needing, impatient -- AND an unfathomable puzzle, one with money, power, expectations and strong feelings of entitlement. That's a hell of a lot for a man to factor into everything he says and does and feels.

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To me, a well-traveled North American recent ex-bachelor of 46, our culture's been over-designed, and weakened for it. In the older cultures, young men and women would paddle through the rapids of change and only get splashed, while over here the canoes have been overturned and the current has all the paddlers in its grasp. The irony or paradox is, most of the single, attractive, intelligent women I know -- and being in the beauty business, I know plenty -- would prefer the male of the pre-feminist, pre-p.c. era to the lifeless twits and insipid metrosexuals they have to make do with nowadays. Interesting too, how so many of the single, attractive, intelligent men I know avoid local women and instead pursue immigrant girls from more established cultures who are comfortable in their own less-complex skins and bring their own flourishes of exotica and mystery with them.

-- Paul Fenn

"That assumption, that generally young men are unworthy of their female counterparts, is certainly in your book. I would get hanged for saying it, but there's an uncomfortable truth there."

Ah, equality!

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Why are so many men drooling, over-privileged, undeserving, cosseted, lunkheaded losers who can't handle life, while women are so articulate, exciting and oh-so coolly stoic about their frustrations? Obviously, one is more undeserving than the other.

Ugh. Does Rebecca Traister ever stop to think that maybe, just maybe, her refusal to acknowledge her own sneering sexism might have something to do with her relationship failures?

Oh but that certainly can't be true, can it?

Well, maybe Ms. Traister ought to just stoically accept the fact that she is way too good for any mortal man. Fish without a bicycle, you know.

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-- Karl Adeson

Traister and Kunkel manage to miss the obvious: For the last 25 years of so, about 90 percent of public messages about men have been negative. This is true in all areas of life, but nowhere more than in our relationships with women. Male sexuality is depicted as clueless, careless and often brutal. Other male endeavors, such as business ventures, are shown to be either stupid and incompetent or avaricious. Still other messages are simply gratuitous, like the routine depiction of men as animals. (There are currently three TV commercials that depict men as chimpanzees.)

If Traister and Kunkel can't open their eyes to popular culture, you'd think they could at least read their own Salon piece. On Page 2 they describe men as per se "unworthy" of women and later advise those same women to go on sexual strike against them. Then they wonder why there are no ardent passionate male lovers around. Gee, maybe they should take about five seconds and think that one over.

-- Robert Franklin

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I was struck upon reading "Attack of the Listless Lads" by the falsely decisive and superior tone adopted by both the author and Mr. Kunkel. Both went to great lengths throughout the dialogue to distance themselves from the plague of wimpy indecisiveness they are convinced afflicts our generation. And yet the entire conversation seemed to wander aimlessly, here constructing pseudo-intellectual visions of historical paradigms uprooted, there discussing decaying social theory like it was written yesterday. The whole thing seemed shifty, inconclusive, and (dare I say) a bit indecisive.

If these are our public intellectuals, is it any wonder the rest of us feel a bit lost?

-- Matthew Burr

Let me tell you what is happening with men in Manhattan. The dominating industries are business, fashion and entertainment. We spend our professional time looking for the bigger deal, the better return and the edgiest, prettiest new thing. You can't turn this attitude off when you're dating. When a man is talking to you he seems to be always peering over your shoulder to see if something better might have just walked in.

Why are women willing to put up with this? I don't know. But I have never seen women so willing to compromise in their relationships as I have here.

-- Donna Huneycutt

Get over the idea that having a man is central to your life. Treat romance as a dessert and not the main course. Once you shift that point of view, men will come running. Your not needing them is central to their wanting you. And once you really, really get this painful truth, you'll probably find you no longer want them, period.

-- Barbara Israel

I would suggest that Rebecca might change her scope a little and perhaps get to know some older men. I can't speak for all in my age group (40-55) but I can say that my life is more interesting than counting holes in ceiling tiles. I do volunteer work, perform in a classical music organization, love my job (really), love animals (yes even cats), work out three times a week, and am passionate about things political, social, and the arts. And the most important thing? After being married for eight years, I know what love really is. It's a far cry from what I thought it was at age 22. I know I may not be as hip as the younger generation, but I know what I want and what I like. And I do stay current on pop culture, fashion, music and social trends simply because I seem to have a thirst for information. So Rebecca, don't rule out the guy with a little gray in his hair, because you might be pleasantly surprised.

-- James Lawrence

As a 30-year old male, I have to say that the issues brought up in Rebecca Traister's piece have been swimming around my idealistic brain for quite some time now. What a stimulating discussion!

Many males of my generation are slackers, I believe, because they see few available alternatives to the '80s corporate mantra of "greed is good." Is this the accepted American model of masculinity? Also, throughout the '80s and '90s, we were sold this line that women wanted sensitive ponytail men who would cry with them over boxes of Kleenex.

Those men of my cohort who are turned off by the shallow indignity of the Tom Cruise model of manhood have been offered up all sorts of fantasy-world images of men -- steroided-up bodybuilders and vacuous carved Brad Pitt male models. It's not surprising that many of these men have resorted to a familiar, drawn-out culture of casual drug use, video games and Simpsons references.

I have had a much easier time simply being a man in the last five years, when I have been living in the U.K. All of these issues exist to some degree here as well, but for some reason, I felt that I was allowed to be, or allowed myself to be, the man that I was, no excuses.

America needs to offer men more options than the greedy corporate pirate, the idiotic male model, the never-ending teenager and the emasculated sensitive guy.

Stand up and do something. Get passionate, stupid! How can you expect someone else to respect you if you don't respect yourself?

-- Matthew Hammond

A "listless lad" responds:

For many reasons it's hard interpreting generalizations and crafting theories, among them that there's always bound to be some part of them that's right, and another that's problematic. That old dialectic. And if you're like me (and the author and the interviewer) and grew up in the last quarter century and went to enough school, by the end of your second or third introductory course in psychology or sociology or philosophy, you started to feel like there was a pretty predictable pattern: first one guy said one thing that everyone thought was real interesting and important, and then after a while another guy said something against the first guy, and then everyone thought that was real timely and the better thing to support, until finally getting really wise and deciding that the truth is somewhere between the two.

So you write your papers and you construct your arguments, and if you're like me, somewhere along the way you decide that what you hoped to get through school -- some version of a Truth that you could use to define your life -- you weren't ever going to be able to, and that actually rather than a search for truth, this all really resembled more of a game, which people who know the rules and like sounding smart think it's fun to play (even though your friends chose more fashionable intellectual pursuits like American culture studies or gender theory or something else sufficiently postmodern-sounding, before they went on to graduate degrees and fellowships -- despite their feelings about how they and their studies break the mold of the stodgy academic and deserve to be regarded differently, and your inability to ever quite understand what they're pursuing -- you know somewhere they are just the next version of the same thing). And still, good for them, you say, there are certainly worse ways of spending your time, but you realize that this isn't for you.

At this point you might be a little jaded, or at least confused. College was something you had always somehow believed in, one of the few things. Your parents aren't religious (maybe one is Jewish, but it's more an ethnic than religious affiliation) and the only things you know about the Bible come from English class. You suffered through the trials of junior high school and did enough drugs in high school to sufficiently numb the experience. The closest thing to stability you experienced in your life was Little League. And now you're in the promised land of College and, although it is kinda fun -- definitely better than high school, and there are definitely cute, interesting girls (although, yeah, often you don't appreciate them, and end up taking advantage of them, or if they're really great, maybe you do fall in love with them, only to realize, like the Radiohead song you're listening to, you wish you were so fucking special, which it turns out they also wish, although not enough to stick around, so then you add a heartbreak or two to the mix) -- and now you're well on your way to progressing through college without much more of an idea about what's important in life than you had coming in.

Your search for meaning must continue.

From this point, I'd just assume not generalize, except to say that it doesn't get less complicated for a while. Maybe you go to New York City and along the way meet the interviewer or one of her friends and get labeled a "Listless Lad."

My search for meaning took me to teaching, where I thought I could make a difference. Unfortunately, even though I had begun to patch together some philosophy of life, mostly having to do with the importance of being connected to the world (something appropriately anti-theoretical and noble enough sounding to make me feel as if I already had made a difference, even if the only real thing I did was decide what I wanted to try), in the end, it turned out I didn't have the intestinal fortitude or emotional constitution to be responsible for maintaining control of a classroom full of kids

And so I had a new thing to make sense of.

Sometimes it's hard not to wish everything had been decided for you in advance. Or that you knew exactly what you wanted -- like your friends who are now getting book deals and writing for Salon, while you're still trying to figure out what to do with yourself. It's not that you're an impassionate or unoriginal person. Far from it, it's just damn hard for you to find your way in this world. But still you haven't given up yet, and you hope that everyone around you won't give up on you either.

So you sit at your computer half a world away, in the middle of trying the next thing, and read that now those friends that did the thing that you couldn't all the way back in college are constructing their theories about you, and they do it with that same sense of authority and unconscious, academic elitism that you remember let you down in the first place. You sit at your computer, go to the online magazine you read every day to keep up with life in the world and you see this article and you wonder, maybe I should finally write one of those letters to the editor and tell those people that think they have it all figured out, that even if you don't have everything figured out yourself, that the one thing you do have is some humility and that counts for something too.

-- Sean Weiner

OK, let me get this straight. Young women are supposed to be responsible for the male sex's will to power by refusing them intercourse? And young men today are so slackerish because women have all these choices and men don't feel like their world is expansive enough? GIVE ME A BREAK!

Allow me to suggest an alternative theory: If Mr. Kunkel and his erudite, upper-middle-class, white male pals are finding it hard to get excited about anything, perhaps it is because when it all comes too easy, nothing seems worth doing. These products of wealthy "helicopter parents" who did everything to make sure their sons had every advantage, and never felt the sting of accountability when they failed, are merely lying in the bed their parents made for them.

Despite his attempts to deny that he's anything like his protagonist, Kunkel's glib theories belie him. After all, why should young men take responsibility for their own behavior? It's so much easier to shift blame to the women in their lives. What's so infuriating is that today's young women are all too willing to buy into the bullshit. Thirty years of feminism and we still haven't learned.

-- Liz Emrich

I've just read another article by Rebecca Traister, and while I usually find her articles somewhat entertaining, I couldn't help but be annoyed by the self-indulgence of this one.

How lucky for her that a book has been written featuring (at least at the outset) an apathetic, adrift, aimless male protagonist that bears some resemblance to the men she has encountered in her personal life.

Sure, Traister admits tongue-in-cheek that the book's publication gave her an excuse to broach the topic of passionless, underwhelming men, but the embarrassing thing is that she apparently needed to publicly validate herself in writing this article: "see, I'm single because men are apathetic and listless, not because I can't form a meaningful romantic relationship." Her reasons for writing the article are so transparent and self-serving it's laughable. And frustrating. I expect better from Salon!

Furthermore, I resent Traister's serious proposition that women are disproportionately better "catches" as mates than their male counterparts. And Kunkel is no help at all! Although he is ostensibly the "expert" being interviewed, he plays the role of a yes man throughout the entire article.

What about listless ladies? Clearly women can be just as apathetic, confused, aimless and paralyzed as men, and can also lack a sense of purpose.

Ask any stoic boyfriend or husband. Or ask me. I've felt (and continue to feel) many of these things throughout my late 20s, and the last time I checked, I had a vagina. And a stoic boyfriend. Phew.

-- Marie Alnwick

Ms. Traister can't have it both ways. Several months ago, she penned a lengthy, self-indulgent lamentation about problems with men who were too eager to find a wife.

Now apparently her problem is that she and her "friends" are encountering men who are completely non-committal.

This is not to say that her premise is completely untrue. But her contradictory writings tell me that maybe it's not the indecisiveness and listlessness of the fellas she should be worried about.

-- William Haynes

Reading your interview with Benjamin Kunkel made me glad of two things: that I no longer have to worry about our bullshit singles culture, and that I stopped reading 95 percent of all modern literature.

-- Tom Coombe

I've frequently enjoyed Rebecca Traister's sharp journalism and skeptic's sense of humor. But how could a conversation about listless young people's dating problems in New York City be complete without discussing the radical economic shifts that have occurred in the last 20 years?

When I graduated from a local university, in 1990, I was able to rent an apartment within walking distance from work. By the time I was 25, I had my own apartment in the East Village on a standard annual wage -- all without receiving one thin dime from Mom and Dad. I enjoyed many advantages as a child, but asking Mom and Dad to pay my grown-up rent has just never been an option -- thank God!

These days, at 22, many young Americans are carrying potentially $50,000 or more in debt. Entry-level wages in most N.Y. industries have essentially been frozen in the mid-20-to-30-grand zone, but the cost of living has tripled, quadrupled or more -- I don't have the exact figures, I'll leave that to the journalists! New Yorkers have only to open the real estate page to see the truth: The market has gone absolutely berserk. Yet we still see twentysomethings popping in and out of fancy (or fashionably unfancy) buildings all over Manhattan.

They can't all be investment banking analysts. Somebody's paying their rent/mortgage and it sure ain't them. There's quite a lot of other people's dough in this town. I've observed wealthy friends immolate their trust funds in cocaine, or simply shift along paralyzed for decades with all Manhattan to play with. Free money from home is a passion killer for all but the strongest of minds.

The narrowing of economic opportunity to banking, I.T., and other dull service sector industries also isn't helping to inflame a passionate wave of youngsters. This is alluded to in the article -- while rich young people's passions are drowning in unearned liquidity, perhaps non-rich young ones are having trouble finding "meaning" in their lives because their stupendous school debt has put a gun to their heads: slave at boring-but-lucrative work, starve or get out of New York City. It's hard to wrestle "meaning" from your life when you just clocked 15 hours at the firm. But people who have never known such hardships are not likely to raise these ideas in the discussion Traister shared with Kunkel.

Traister and her friends want "passion"? Drop the half-drunk, waffling prepsters and try a regular guy with a job who pays his own bills. A carpenter, say -- someone who actually does something here and now to help his fellow human beings. Or perhaps a guy who's responsibly self-supporting an artistic dream, as long as he's stepping toward it with all his adult ability and not just lying around wishing for it. But beware: Such men would wish for women of a similar evolutionary state!

Personally, as tough as it may be to admit sometimes, I think we date reflections of ourselves. The responsibility for whom we date ultimately is our own and no one else's. If you bring a consumer's attitude to the "dating market," you should be prepared to be (listlessly) consumed yourself.

-- Danny O'Brien

OK, let me get this straight: For years, women have been telling us that men are afraid of commitment. Books, TV shows, movies (other than Neil Diamond, what else was "Beautiful Girls" about?), hell, there's even an entire TV channel (Lifetime! Where men are scum!) that seems devoted to the topic. Hey, yo! We got it!

But that's not good enough! Nope: Rebecca Traister tells us that women are put off by men who are "too" interested in commitment! Yup: in "Wife Shop!" on March 18 of this very year, we're told how darn "scary" we men are when we do want a commitment. Back off, men!

And of course, there's the fact that there ain't no rules no more. Pay for dinner, or not? Hold the door, or not? Try to get a kiss on the first date, or not? A peck on the cheek? On the lips? Put your arm around her during the movie? Call back in one day? (Too eager!) Two days? Three? (Too late!) Where to go on the second date? When to invite her over? When to introduce your weird friends? When do you admit the secret love of old Journey records? How long do you wait before you meet her parents? Before you try to get her into bed? Do you talk about old girlfriends at all? A little? Just enough to let her know how much better she is? Can you date her if you both work in the same office? Both work out at the same gym? (Pardon me: club.) I could go on all day.

And hey, what's the result? Ms. Traister points out that all the "lads" are now listless! (Sept. 19.) Didn't take them long to go from too forward to listless. Those damn inconsistent men!

Now, I admit that I am a few years removed from the dating wars (thank God), but even so, Rebecca, the answer seems pretty obvious. If ever there was a textbook case to be labeled "mixed signals," this is it. And you wonder why the men are listless? Yeesh.

-- Douglas Moran


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