The charm of London Review of Books' personals

A love letter to the quirky, romantic ads that spawned two books, a Twitter account and a few marriages

Published February 9, 2010 11:10PM (EST)

I smoke, I drink, I talk waaaay too much and think even more than that, I swear like a longshoreman, I’m usually covered in dog hair, I do not order salad as a full meal, I always want to Talk About It, I might be funnier than you, I want to be taken care of but hate feeling weak, I’m completely disorganized, I will keep cuddling until you pry me off you (and so will my dogs), I say “awesome” a lot, I don’t lie even if it’s easier, I tell my girlfriends everything, I expect to come, and I’ve been told repeatedly that I scare the crap out of men. If that sounds like your kind of girl, awesome.

That's the last ad I ever ran on an online dating site, starting two months before I met the man who would become my husband. When I shared it with a trusted girlfriend (whose immediate critique was, "Well, I guess you only need to find one"), she tried to gently lecture me on selling myself, but I cut her off: "I am selling myself. Just to a very small niche market."

I’d already proven I could attract a large number of responses by appealing to the lowest common denominator. At 19, I won a contest among my dorm-mates to see who could get the most replies to a free 25-word ad in a local alternative weekly, the only restriction being that you couldn't lie. My ad was eight words long and included my age, bra size and the phrases "lapsed Catholic" and "needs excitement." More than 200 men responded. But of course I didn’t pursue any of them; oddly enough, I wasn’t really interested in the kind of guy who would answer an ad that essentially said: "I am a busty, barely legal teenager, and I have no standards worth mentioning.” (My sole objective that time was winning a case of Milwaukee’s Best from the losers.)

Twelve years later, when I was actually hoping to meet someone I could fall in love with, I wasn’t particularly keen on the kind of responses I’d get with a garden-variety “Urban professional, 31, animal-lover” ad, either. At that point, after more than a decade of experience with dating and long-term relationships, I was far more interested in weeding out obvious Mr. Wrongs -- guys who'd balk at the word "feminist," or describe 5'2", excessively cuddly me as "scary," or interpret conflicting desires as hypocrisy -- than in casting a wide net. What I was looking for above all was someone who recognized that a lover's flaws only remain quirky and adorable for so long, but the right person is still well worth it. (Also, someone who would never characterize that nod to reality as "settling.")

To the extent that one can take the London Review of Books' famous personal ads section seriously at all, that type of thinking seems to be its raison d'etre. Although LRB advertising director David Rose -- who recently published his second collection of personals, "Sexually, I'm More of a Switzerland" -- told GQ he originally envisioned the section merely as a place for people interested in the same books to connect, it quickly became something much funnier, darker and possibly even more successful at matchmaking. As one would expect from the LRB's audience, the ads were witty and erudite -- but also frequently self-deprecating to the point of absurdity, sometimes circling all the way back around to arrogance (at least of the infuriatingly charming sort that makes you picture George Clooney instead of a guy who just told you up front he's ugly and lives with his mother). Consider the man who begins with a list of eyebrow-raising sexual conquests and past romances, including "2003-2006 -- Evil Satanic Bitch Whore," then concludes, "Don't pretend your relationships have been any less incongruous and unsatisfying. Write to probably the most normal guy you'll ever see in a lonely heart advert and maybe we'll end up friends or lovers or despising each other and wincing every time we remember our awful one-night stand or maybe we'll get married and have children." Admit it: You kind of want to call that guy.

In a review of Rose's first collection, "They Call Me Naughty Lola," for Salon, Buzzy Jackson compared the London Review of Books style of self-promotion ("Things I won't do for love include replacing corroding soil pipes and trepanning at home. Everything else is A-OK. Eager-to-please woman [36] seeks domineering man to take advantage of her flagging confidence. Tell me I'm pretty, then watch me cling" ) to the truly shameless sort found in its New York counterpart -- e.g., "LITHE, LOVELY. Vivacious, passionate, successful concert singer (Lincoln Center, Carnegie) ... Cool (but not cold) blonde with an enviably high metabolism -- witty, classy, quick to smile -- a mix of Angelica Huston/Cameron Diaz. Argentina-born, Paris (Sorbonne) educated and fluent in six languages..." Seriously, who would you rather date? If you'd pick a woman whose humorless, self-important ad describes her as "witty" over one who says she won't debase herself for love by trepanning at home, well... you wouldn't be the partner for me. Or for that woman, surely, which is the whole point.

"Those other personals are like resumes, and who's ever turned on by a resume?" says Rose. "In the few words the lonely hearts advertisers have in the LRB, they still manage to capture a more complete essence of that person than anything you could find on Match." Some ads, Rose points out, use quite sophisticated comedic and literary techniques in such a small space. Some brilliantly satirize the more expected type of ad. And as a bonus, "because they're from that British intellectual class, you get a lot of Monty Python. There's an awful lot of silly and outrageous and full on non-sequiturs." What's not to love -- at least if already you love that sort of thing? And if you do, would you want to be with someone who didn’t?

If you don't, then you can always go to one of the sites where people market themselves with all the humility and attention to detail of a used car salesman, as they're often advised to do by what Rose calls "Dear Abby types." Accentuate the positive! Conveniently forget the negative! There will be plenty of time for the other person to find out how fucked up you are – why would you give that away before the first date?

Maybe because after a certain point, you have a pretty good idea of what your worst yet most enduring qualities are, and you’re sick of wasting time with people who can’t handle them. The LRB’s average reader is fiftysomething, after all, and many of the ad buyers mention their divorces; these are people who’ve been around the block. They know what their dealbreakers are – both in the sense of what they won’t accept in a partner, and what other people are likely to find unacceptable in them. Rose suggests that part of the motivation for writing such silly ads is “lowering the stakes” – building in a plausible reason for rejection that isn’t directly related to your looks or, say, your very soul – and there’s probably a lot of truth to that. But as someone who published a much less witty variation on the same theme a few years ago, I can also tell you I was just plain sick of guys who would either react negatively to qualities I'm not ashamed of (Talking About It; telling my own jokes instead of just laughing at his; "pathological honesty," in the words of one boyfriend) or try to shame me into changing qualities so entrenched that, even if I wasn't proud of them, I knew anyone who might live with me someday had best get used to them (pottymouth, dog hair, disorganization, indiscretion, use of "awesome"). I figured I’d rather put it all out there and get no responses than be coy and end up dating a guy who hated half of what makes me me.

And it worked; I was introduced to my husband by a mutual friend, as it turned out, but in the interim, I fielded a couple dozen responses to that ad and went on several dates, some of which were even fun. Writing a self-deprecating personal may let potential partners know you’re imperfect (gasp!), but it also tells them you know who you are and have the confidence to say, “Take it or leave it.” And if you go far enough over the top (“Join me in my 36-bedroom mansion on my Gloucestershire estate, set in 400 acres of wild-stag populated woodland” writes an LRB reader who also notes he’s been called a pathological liar), it can even invert the usual concern about how truthful a personal ad is. Instead of wondering how much worse this guy is than he claims, you’re wondering how much better.

So, even if one of those “Dear Abby types” told Rose “This is not good! You're ruining these people's lives!” and the LRB’s own editor says they’re “not [her] thing,” the goofy, charming little personals section – not to mention the spin-off books and Twitter feed -- continues to thrive. Partly because it works -- it’s reportedly been responsible for at least a few marriages – and partly because it’s hilarious reading, whether you’re looking for love or not. (“Most partners cite the importance of having a loved one who will listen and understand them. I’m here to rubbish this theory. F, 38.”) If nothing else, it’s hard to get depressed about being single when you’re laughing so hard.


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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