Books January 2002

Mr. Goodbar Redux

Illusions. Affectation. Lies. This is the insidious and incapacitating legacy of modern dating books

Lyndon McGill wanted to know how people fell in love. So he decided, he confides in The Mating Game (1992), "to take a field trip to a farm and observe the animals." He was soon witnessing the copulation of a cow and a bull. "Coupling continued for a few minutes," he reports, "and then, without warning, the cow suddenly pulled away and ran to the opposite side of the corral ... I recalled how our family dog had behaved similarly." McGill's conclusion? To keep a man's interest, a woman must rise abruptly after sex and leave the room, the city, or even the country. It rekindles the man's desire. As McGill explains with a flourish, it's "just like taking a bone away from a dog." Such is the state of contemporary dating research in America.

If The Mating Game is a particularly unfortunate example of the proliferating genre of dating-advice books, it is not very different in substance from its companions. Its advice to women is that of the New York Times best seller The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right (1995), by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider: Make him miss you! Be mean to him so he'll be nice to you! It is the wisdom of John Gray's stunningly successful Mars and Venus series: Man is the pursuer. Make him pursue you. Although perfunctory contempt for such books is taken for granted among America's intelligentsia, guilty fascination with them is equally evident. Dating books are like traffic accidents: everybody says they're awful, and everybody sneaks a look at them.

Little is easier than poking fun at most of these seduction manuals—at their cartoonish view of human nature, their bulleted lists of proven ploys, their quadruple exclamation points, and their sometimes bludgeoningly repetitive self-promotion ("You're not doing The Rules! ... You have to do The Rules! We suggest you try The Rules for six months before doing anything else. You can't do The Rules and something else ... Just do The Rules!"). Nothing is easier than laughing at their gimmicks. Dilate your pupils, says How to Make Anyone Fall in Love With You (1996), by Leil Lowndes: the "copulatory gaze plays a big role in lovemaking." "Massage your neck with one hand," says Date Like a Man (2000), by Myreah Moore and Jodie Gould. "It has the effect of raising the breast ... which is erotic." Go to the bathroom in a restaurant, says Gray's Mars and Venus on a Date (1997): it gives men the chance to see you. "Read the obituaries," says How to Meet the Rich: For Business, Friendship, or Romance (1999), by Ginie Sayles.

If the gimmicks range from bizarre to morbid, the contradictions among—and within—these books go from insidious to incapacitating. Never let a man know you're interested, says The Rules. Rent a billboard and trumpet your love ("'Bill Thomas, what are you waiting for? Give me a call so I can show you why we are made for each other! Love, Ginnie'"), says Date Like a Man. Postpone sex, say The Rules, Mars and Venus, and Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments (2000), by Shmuley Boteach. "Men are businessmen," Boteach writes: if they're getting sex without a ring, they won't produce the ring. Unless they happen to be millionaires. "Sex usually begins soon with the rich," declares How to Meet the Rich. "Do you really think someone will marry you because he just has to have sex with you?" Ginie Sayles also provides my favorite contradiction of all—coming, as it does, from a book that suggests (among other gambits) that you invent an out-of-town job and fake a move far away to provoke a proposal: Don't play games. "If you play games, you have to be prepared to have someone play them with you."

In fact, no matter how deceitful these books urge you to be, a common denominator among them—and probably a key to American self-image in our moment in history—is that they also urge you to be "true to yourself"; they all tout "self-esteem," not merely as the highest of virtues in general but also as the source and end of their instructions in particular. Thus The Rules tells you that to suppress the urge to call your boyfriend constitutes "self-esteem"; its competitor, The Real Rules (1997), by Barbara De Angelis, says that "Old Rules" like these "sabotage your self-esteem," and intones that real self-esteem consists precisely in making that call. No matter what game they advocate, they want self-esteem on their team. Self-esteem is to popular psychology what God is to fundamentalism—the banner under which you fight, no matter for what desperate or cruel thing you are fighting.

As a genre these books draw astonishing numbers of readers. Many of these doubtless consider themselves ironic and atypical; but ironic audiences are often the most faithful of all. Nor are they motivated, as one might suppose, mainly by curiosity about all matters erotic. In fact, the assumption in all this literature is that its audience is not pleasure-seeking but desperate; not confident, adventuresome, and looking for tips on how to have a good time, but frightened and looking for hints on how to avoid disaster—how to avoid further time as a single girl. Because, yes, 95 percent of these books are written to women. When men do the writing, they present themselves as avuncular advisers to panicking girls—the few good wolves helping the sheep. Men are bad, they seem to admit: they "use women for sex," declares the smiling threesome Bradley Gerstman, Christopher Pizzo, and Rich Seldes, in What Men Want (1998), and "if [they] didn't have to marry, [they] wouldn't." But the larger question that emerges from these books is not so much why men don't want to marry (supposing this were true) as why women want so much to marry. Or why these writers think they should want so much to marry, quickly and at any cost. Face it, say the self-styled "Rules Girls" Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, "most women want to be proposed to yesterday." Most women who begin dating an appealing man "bring up marriage or the future after a couple of weeks." Is this true? If it is, one cannot help thinking that men's much lamented "resistance to commitment" is thoroughly sane. What man could feel, under such circumstances, like anything but a convenient walk-on player in a drama whose substance and staging were established long before his arrival?

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