Since 2005 and Neil Strauss’s The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, the number of blogs, books, and forums devoted to teaching men how to get with women has, as they say, exploded, and pickup offers a seductive conceit: with the right words, posture, and attitude, average guys can sleep with attractive women. The seductive conceit tends not to play out all that well: by the time one learns enough and changes enough to sleep with lots of attractive women, a random guy isn’t the guy he was when he started.
Most of these guys are guys, both writers and readers. Clarisse Thorn, “a feminist S&M writer and activist,” obviously isn’t. She doesn’t want to sleep with more women today! She wants something that, from an intellectual perspective, is more interesting: understanding. In Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, she offers an introduction similar to the one I wrote in the first paragraph of this post:
There’s a huge subculture devoted to teaching men how to seduce women. Within the last half-decade or so, these underground ‘pickup artists’ have burst into the popular consciousness, aided first and foremost by Neil Strauss’s bestselling 2005 book The Game.
One real question: Why do so many men need to learn “how to seduce women?” What aren’t men being taught in schools? By their fathers? Friends? Culture? Anything that needs to be consciously learned and taught isn’t being absorbed from other avenues. Why did “Game” emerge when it did, as opposed to 1970, or 1950, or 1850? To my mind, the sexual revolution and the Internet play large parts: the former reduced monogamy, encouraged more people to sleep with more people, and made women more independent of their families, while the latter allows outsiders to congregate and discuss matters that can’t find mainstream publishers and outlets.
I can say that, at least in my case, I noticed the same sorts of things many guys notice in high school: the same handful of guys seem to get 80 or 90% of female attention, and, as usual, that “chicks dig jerks” and that they eschew “nice guys.” The question eventually becomes, again, “Why?”
Bad answers tend to be, “women are inscrutable” or “just because.” Better answers are out there. I think a lot of guys glom onto pickup ideas not only because some specific tactics work, but because the ideas themselves help explain behavior that seems otherwise mysterious and self-defeating. As Thorn says, “When there’s no standard etiquette or well-understood social channels for how to meet women, then it seems obvious that a bunch of dudes would start getting together trying to figure out how to do that.” If there was “standard etiquette,” it’s gone now, along with standard corporate jobs-for-life.
The role of evolutionary biology and psychology is also underrated in the growth of pickup artists. That field provides answers about what people, or at least people from some cultures, find attractive, and helps to explain why people find what they find attractive. Without that intellectual ballast, I doubt we’d see the surface phenomenon of the pickup artist; that’s merely the mast and the deck. The stuff keeping the ship upright is down below, out of sight. Bad, sloppy, or reductivist evolutionary psychology is easy to discredit, and it should be discredited, but there’s an intellectual core that remains.
Pickup shows, or attempts to show, guys how to get with women in modern environments; as Thorn says, “often, the discussions and the seminars and the meetups are one big group of people who break down seductive behaviors as precisely as they possibly can.” Some pickup artists see what they do as part of self-improvement and enhancement. Others, in Thorn’s view, are “Darth Vader” pickup artists; Thorn describes one this way: “whatever would be more evil and more powerful than Darth Vader, that’s Roissy. [. . .] he is almost comically villainous.” She’s right in that last description, and “comically villainous” has a weird, almost 18th Century ring that’s appropriate for Roissy’s commentary and fundamental harmlessness (he writes a blog and lives in DC, after all, and it’s hard to take his more hyperbolic assertions seriously).
Nonetheless, men like Roissy are the ones Thorn seeks out. There’s a thread of honesty, of self-criticism, that runs through Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser: “I can’t deny that I myself pay more attention to hot men [. . .] I can’t deny that I wanted PUAs’ approval.” The wanting “approval” makes sense: if you don’t want approval, it’s easy enough to rant ignorantly about a subject. Plus, when a phenomenon is sufficiently widespread, it’s worth understanding it, and your own relationship to it, before criticizing it. Thorn does both.
She also gave an interview in which she said that, while she sees feminism as telling us a lot about the macro aspects of gender in our society (in work and school, for example), feminism does very little to describe, let alone evaluate, how micro, day-to-day interactions are structured. Pickup artists, or whatever one may want to call guys who are consciously building their skills at going out and getting women, are describing the specific comments, conversations, styles, and venues women respond to. The pickup artists are saying, “This is how you approach a woman in a bar, this is how you strike up a conversation at the grocery store, and so forth.” In other words, they’re looking at how people actually go about the business of getting laid. Their work is often very detailed, and the overall thrust is toward the effectiveness of getting laid rather than how male-female interactions work in theory. Feminism, in Thorn’s view, appears to be silent, or mostly silent, on the day-to-day interactions.
Women also haven’t tended, so far as I or Thorn knows, to produce the same material about why they pick the guys they pick, what they say, what happens in the lead-up to sex, and what happens afterward. Men produce these sometimes voluminous field reports (Reddit’s “seduction” community is full of them), to the point where the occasional woman appears to ask why no one is producing pickup material for women. Nothing is stopping women from doing so, but the average woman appears less interested in how to “pick up” guys and more interested in relationships (which one can see from, say, The Rules versus The Game, or romance novels versus porn). The average of many people’s desires doesn’t say anything about a particular individual’s desires or proclivities, but we do see patterns emerge through aggregation.
It’s virtually impossible to be a thinking person and not notice the disjuncture between behavior in bars / clubs / parties and academic / Internet feminist thinking. It’s hard to reconcile 50 Shades of Gray, submissive S&M preferences, and romance novels with feminist thinking (Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance is excellent for its observations, but her preexisting ideological framework automatically assumes everything about gender preferences is the fault of a pervasive “patriarchy” that, if it once existed, didn’t by the time I came of age).
People like Thorn are trying to bridge that gap, which I admire. What academic feminists think average women should want (and what average men are like) seems very different from what many normal women want. It’s hard if not impossible to legislate desire, or change it through haranguing, though people certainly have tried and continue to try. One thing I think most people have in common is hypocrisy and lying, either to themselves or others, and sexual behavior is certainly rife with both hypocrisy and lying. My favorite public example are the closeted Republicans who fulminate against being gay and then get caught in a “wide stance,” tapping their foot in a men’s bathroom. But they’re so pathetic a target that they’re not really worth discussing on an intellectual level.
Thorn’s book is worth that discussion, and running through Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser is a simple conundrum: we don’t know who someone really is, versus when someone is who we want them to be (example: “When I met Neil [Strauss] in Chicago, he seemed low-key and authentic, but I suppose that’s just what he’d want me to think”). The authenticity question isn’t unique to Confessions: it runs through literature, especially in literary fiction and science fiction, through psychology, through sociology, and through everyday life. Our personalities themselves aren’t stable, and they’re influenced by situations. We want to believe ourselves to be authentic, and we want to believe that we can fully understand other people, but those beliefs whither in the face of both academic evidence and the evidence of everyday life and social interaction.
We just don’t know. Pickup wants men to believe that we can mold ourselves into something better; that molding is simply of a particular kind, oriented in a particular direction. To be good at pickup is as hard as being good at anything else: it might start with learning some clever lines and some confidence, but it ends with the entire state of one’s social and physical being, from wardrobe to workout to interests to speaking skills to dancing to friends. Maybe the scariest thing of all to women is the extent to which men will change their personalities to attract women, or the extent to which attracting women is a skill that can be learned, contrary to the dominant cultural paradigm of love at first sight, “it just happened,” and the belief in romantic destiny. Women, however, don’t like to feel as if they’re being “gamed.” By definition, the best pickup artists conceal their craft. If you know you’re being gamed, the game itself has failed.
Good pickup also means empathy, which men and women lack in equal measure. Thorn writes:
Age 15 may also have been when guys began shouting gross comments at me in the street, but I’m not sure. It was a few years before I started going to parties and clubs where some guys would approach and refuse to leave me alone, no matter how obvious I thought I made it that I wasn’t interested. These experiences, among many others, contributed to the development of what a PUA would call my “bitch shield”: my instinctive tendency to be cold and unfriendly during unexpected interactions with unfamiliar guys.
Many women have bitch shields to some degree — when we don’t, we get a lot more “I’ve been watching you and your nice breasts” comments. PUAs devote a lot of mental energy to figuring out how to quickly convince women.
Pickup teaches, or should teach, men to appreciate why “Many women have bitch shields to some degree.” I’m not sure that there’s a female equivalent to make pickup that helps women realize just how much rejection being a male entails. Pickup is also about teaching you to imagine how you appear, or should appear, to others; Thorne correctly notes that “‘Just be yourself’ is terrible advice if you are naturally unbelievably awkward.” The self you should be, whether you want to form relationships or just get laid, is something else.
Although the better pickup types don’t promise something for nothing, the worst ones do. The reality with pickup is the same reality that confronts anyone who wants to truly a master a skill, whether that skill be programming, knitting, writing, music: it takes time, effort, and intensive effort. “No art, however minor, demands less than total dedication if you want to excel in it,” as Leon Battista Alberti said, and seducing women is an art like any other. Some men appear to be “naturally” good at it, which usually means that they have some inborn predisposition combined with unconscious training
I discussed ideas and trends in the first part of this essay because those are the most interesting and useful parts of the book. A lot of Thorn’s writing, however, is weak. At one point she says of pickup artists, “some of them were so smart it blew my mind.” Such clichés should be excised like a demon: swiftly, surely, and religiously. Chapter 3 starts with Thorn saying, “I’m a feminist sex-positive activist. For me, that means that I try to raise awareness of social problems around sexuality.” But, again, anyone with decent reading comprehension skills will already know that, because she mentioned it several times. Some sections are too long and should be cut, and it becomes easier to skip sections the longer one reads. The word “super” is overused as an intensifier: “I acknowledged times in the past when I’ve been super awkward;” “He’s super-analytical too;” “his consent was super important to me;” “he wasn’t going to be a super-major relationship no matter what.” That’s only a handful of examples. Like “very” or salt, “super” should be used sparingly. Too many super things aren’t super at all.
The word “problematic” is similarly problematic: instead of arguing why an idea or a concept is a problem, “problematic” simply asserts that it is; as word, it conceals more than it reveals, and it conceals a lot: “some men are so starved of knowledge about masculinity that they idolize Roissy and overlook some of the more problematic things he has said;” “the seduction community is very heteronormative: it really buys into problematic gender standards;” “all the words that I put in quote marks above are concepts that I consider incredibly problematic;” “while the advice in The Rules is often problematic, much of it works;” a woman named Kristen J says “[ad] agencies understand the effects of problematic norms on women.” Using a weasel word like “problematic” once or twice falls within the author’s license not to explain everything. Using it more than half a dozen times means the next version should be edited with greater care.
While I’m here, let me talk for a moment about Kristen J. I’m not convinced advertisers exploit women, or know that they do, but the bigger issue is that advertisers want to do whatever works; if ads didn’t work, at all, advertisers would quit trying. She says that “The thing is, advertising isn’t just a consequence of problematic norms… it’s a creator of them, too.” Maybe. But the norms emerge from collective individual choices, and I think advertiser are mostly reacting to what they see as being effective. It’s certainly more fun to blame ad agencies than to look around and say the blame for the effectiveness of advertising lies, at least a little bit, in each of us, and in our aggregate preferences (for more on this topic, see Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior). I mentioned a similar idea in a different context above, but the same principle applies here.
Technical problems with Thorn’s writing aren’t limited to the level of the sentence, either. She assumes the reader’s stupidity:
Here we are again at the end of a chapter! Did you read it all? Was it too long for you? It’s okay if you didn’t read it all, because I hereby bestow upon you some ‘Too Long; Didn’t Read’ bullet points!
“Was it too long for you?” sounds vaguely pornographic out of context while simultaneously being infantilizing: if you’re not in middle school, a couple thousands words on a compelling topic shouldn’t be too long. If it is too long, the writer should cut words. The best writing advice I’ve ever heard is “omit unnecessary words.” In Confessions, Chapter 12 begins this way: “This is the last chapter, and I won’t offer a “Too Long; Didn’t Read” section at the end. My Grand Theory of The Ethical Game cannot be reduced to mere bullet points!” This implies that the preceding 11 chapters can “be reduced to mere bullet points”—but if they can, why bother writing extended narratives? Why not just shorten the book to the bullet points? I don’t think the preceding chapters can be reduced to bullets, which is frustrating both about the bullets themselves and the way they disrupt the book’s flow.
Confessions is slack. It’s hard to describe precisely what tautness entails, but in vague terms it means feeling like every part of the book connects to every other part, or at least to a linear, forward-moving narrative or level of understanding. Too many of the conversations in Confessions feel superfluous—not on their own, but put in the context of each other. Fixing this kind of problem is a long and difficult effort, and I don’t have a good sense of how rising action in each chapter or scene should function.
But I know it when I don’t see it, and too often I didn’t see it. Neil Strauss’s The Game builds in a classic fashion, portraying his journey from outsider to neophyte to expert to transcending the limits of his field. Confessions sort of has that structure, but it’s more digressive, more random, and not in ways that feel like they build. In the middle of the book I began skipping sections that felt repetitive, as issues about pickup, game, and feminism were analyzed from angles that seemed nearly indistinguishable from how they’d been previously analyzed. There was a feeling of “almost, but not quite;” I want the stories to be tighter than they are.
Tautness can’t be quoted. It can be observed: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has it. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has it. Tucker Max’s stories have it. So do Chelsea Handler’s better stories. Confessions needs it.
I may also be more attuned to tautness because for a long time I had a major problem with it in my own writing. To some extent all writers worth a damn struggle with tautness; the ones who don’t care either write tautly unconsciously or risk boring their readers.
Even the best non-narrative, nonfiction is intellectual taut, with ideas that build on one another towards their conclusions. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind has this quality, even though it’s not a narrative book. observing the issue may be worthwhile: nonfiction writers need to think about the tautness issue, because readers will recognize when a work builds and when a work should be restructured in a way that makes it more compelling.
The first couple chapters were the most compelling, followed by the Neil Strauss chapter. I’m spending so much time on stylistic weaknesses because I want the book to be better. The subject interests me and Thorn’s vantage is fresh. Only the execution is lacking. Thorn is doing something I admire: reporting. For a self-published writer, this is unusual. She goes out to meet and talk to people involved in her subject. She only needs her Robert Gottlieb, her Maxwell Perkins.
I hope Thorn finds him, or her.