The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships — Neil Strauss

The Truth is poorly named but it’s also amazing and you should read it, preferably in the biblical, imitation-leather edition. Unfortunately, The Truth buries the lede: the weakest, most tedious section by far is the beginning, when Strauss goes to therapy for “sex addiction” (which may not exist, at least for reasonable definitions of “exist”).* Don’t give up. Get past the first third and pay special attention to the rest, where Strauss’s sharp, comedic / absurdist observations strike.

the_truthIn the first section, we learn that there is such a thing as “a CSAT,” that is, “a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist.” The therapists seem at least as mad as the patients, which seems to be a recurring theme in life (you know what they say about psych majors…). The treatment does not work, at least at first. Strauss, seeking answers, gets what appears to be an fMRI, hoping that his brain makes hedonic and novelty-seeking, only to be told that he chooses relationships or the chase. Score one for free will or something like it.

The middle section is about the chase. The chase is about women, yes, but it’s also about finding a way to be. Strauss meets people whose new-age and pseudo-religious or -mystical bullshit is vile. At one moment, meeting a woman who presents herself as a guru, “Common sense tells me to leave; curiosity drives me forward.” That’s the writer coming out. I wish I could say that I always follow common sense. I don’t, for the same reason. Strauss’s Guru attempts “mix spirituality with business” and then says, “Let me know if you have any ET experiences in Peru.”

He doesn’t. He runs.

Unfortunately he runs to a polyamory retreat that’s also infused with spirituality nonsense that should’ve died with the ’70s. That doesn’t work out either:

I look up and see a yoga stud from Kamala’s pod.

“Have you rounded up any more girls?” the orbiter asks him.

Kamala Devi and Shama Helena said polyamory was about loving relationships, not casual sex. But these guys seem more like next-level pickup artists, coming to these conferences with the intention of sucking any available women into their powerful reality.

Understanding things as they are, as opposed to how they “seem,” is rarely easy for anyone, anywhere—which may be one reason we have literature. The supposedly selfless caring for others that Strauss hears about is more like socialism, with its attendant problems: Equality for you and special privileges for me.

Later, things do not improve for Strauss: “This is truly the blackest day of my life: I’ve been kicked out of an orgy for eating popcorn.” He’s eating popcorn because he can’t fake bogosity at the level necessary for that world.

So he tries another (there are more worlds out there than most of us know). His next stop involves something like conventional swingers, if that phrase isn’t an oxymoron, at a club or party called Bliss. Towards the height of his first experience, he writes that “I would’ve paid every penny in the bank for this experience ten years ago—If I’d known it was even possible.” Many things are possible, but the mind holds us back; the same theme in a different context plays out repeatedly in Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. For Strauss, that moment is “the closest thing to heaven I’ve ever experienced.”

Then he passes out. He’s taken too much GHB.

So, in short, Strauss attends an orgy that should be everything he’s ever wanted, but he takes drugs he shouldn’t and doesn’t have the sex he should, or that he thinks he wants. While there, he meets a woman who seems mostly like a groupie but who also demands monogamy and yet goes to an orgy, chiefly because her “friend” is there (that people are not internally consistent or even interested in internal consistency could be a shadow theme of The Truth—or maybe it’s just been written by an “ambivalent,” as Strauss is, or is termed).

He goes to another and decides he is “determined not to wreck this orgy like all the others.” I won’t speak to what happens, but one does get the sense that Strauss is well attuned to self-criticism and understanding how others will see him.

Wanting to be a swinger or polyamorous person can make internal, logical, and consistent sense; one cannot say the same for what comes next, when Strauss, on his own, sticks three straight women in the same domicile and attempts to date all of them, simultaneously, while living with them. The preceding sentence’s length and complexity is deliberately designed to evoke the complexity of Strauss’s arrangement.

In sports there is a term called “unforced errors,” which occur when a player does something transparently wrong that is not caused by the opponent or some other outside force. What Strauss attempts is an unforced error and one that ought to be easily foreseen. But one might attribute this to that previous mentioned issue between common sense and curiosity. The three women more or less come to Strauss, in his telling. Mastering “the game” has evidently done things for him.

In The Truth Strauss ultimately assigns the genesis of his adult relationship habits to his upbringing. In his case maybe that’s true, but I’m reluctant to assume a casual relationship between upbringing and adult life: how many people who had childhoods similar to his grew up to be functional adults? Since at least the time of Freud it’s been popular to ascribe adult personality traits to childhood, but I’m not convinced those are robustly supported and that they’re more than just-so stories we tell ourselves to make sense of a deeply chaotic, multi-faceted world.

Psychiatry and psychology in particular are deeply troubled fields because we don’t have good models for the brain. In those domains it may be obvious when someone is too dysfunctional to live independently, but the supposed treatments and models are derived from poor or nonexistent premises. Imagine trying to start a car and discovering that one third of the time it starts, one third it doesn’t nothing, and another third of the time the engine dies. That’s close to the current state of real knowledge about psychiatry and psychology.

We tell ourselves stories, which is great—in some ways I am a professional storyteller—but we use science to figure out what’s reliably and consistently true, and the childhood traumas leading to adult reenactments does not appear to be reliably and consistently true. Perhaps the stories Strauss tells himself now allow him to live in a particular and better way, and in that sense they’re functional. But they may not be causal.

On page 10 of The Truth Strauss writes of his then-girlfriend and now-wife, “She is reliving her mother’s relationship with her cheating father. I am reliving my father’s secret sex life. We are repeating a pattern handed down by generations of lying, cheating assholes and the poor fools who trust them.” They specifically seem to be repeating generational trauma. The idea that we repeat our childhood experiences has been commonplace since Freud, but is it true? Do we really have any evidence of it, or, again, are we just telling ourselves stories? Pop culture loves Freudian ideas. I’m not so sure that the psychosexual narrative Strauss constructs is more real than one that accepts the null hypothesis.

By the end Strauss is married. I wonder how Strauss’s marriage will hold up over time. I wouldn’t bet on “well” without favorable odds. Many beliefs that feel firm at a given moment turn out to be provisional in the fullness of time. It’s striking that Strauss never, so far as I know, mentions his age or the age of his lover, Ingrid.

For all of his problems, I can’t imagine most guys doing what Strauss has done or accomplishing what Strauss has accomplished. For all the psychic trauma in his childhood, the outcome is impressive.

The Truth is the sort of book I can’t imagine being made, in any sort of honest way, into a movie. Oddly, perhaps, I can imagine The Game being made into a reasonably honest movie and am somewhat surprised that it hasn’t been.

The final truth about relationships is that there is no final, universal truth about relationships. We make things up as we go along and universal experiences aren’t universal. It’s not a real sexy truth. It also doesn’t require a book to say. Instead, we tell all our stories about relationships in the book of life and the stories we draw from it.**

Let us return to the beginning of The Truth again. Strauss starts by saying he is “the king of ambivalence.” He wants what he can’t have or doesn’t have at that moment. This is not good and is perhaps generalizable:

Most married people I know don’t seem to be any happier. One day Orlando Bloom, an actor I’d written a Rolling Stone article about, came over to visit. At the time he was married to one of the world’s most successful and beautiful women, Victoria’s Secret supermodel Miranda Kerr [. . .] And one of the first things out of his mouth? “I don’t know if marriage is worth it. I don’t know why anyone does it. I mean, I want romance and I want to be with someone, but I just don’t think it works.”

My other married friends haven’t fared much better.

Yet he does it anyway. To his credit, Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity does eventually get name-checked, since Perel has done unusual work in questioning our usual arrangements. Still. On the first page Strauss considers a woman and writes a sentence that could be an alternate title: “Not my type, but I would.” The book processes his motion from “but I would” to “but I won’t,” even if she is his type (and it seems that most women are).

* Psychiatry and psychology in general aren’t in good epistemological shape. There is no good functional, reproducible model of the brain. Both fields may essentially be wielding beads and rattles rather than science and be closer to shamanism than medicine.

** This is a post I’ve meant to write for a long time, but it hasn’t been an easy write.

The appeal of “pickup” or “game” or “The Redpill” is a failure of education and socialization

Since posting “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?” and “Men are where women were 30 years ago?” I’ve gotten into a couple discussions about why Neil Strauss’s The Game is popular and why adjacent subjects like “pickup” and the “Redpill” have become more popular too. One friend wrote, “It’s so tedious to see how resentful men get—a subject much in the news lately because of the Santa Barbara shooting…”

That’s somewhat true, but underlying, longer-term trends are still worth examining. The world is more complex than it used to be in many respects, and that includes sex and dating. Until relatively recently—probably the late 60s / early 70s—it was common for most guys to marry a local girl, maybe straight out of high school, and marry a girl whose parents the guy probably knows and her parents probably know the guy’s. Parents, families, and religious authorities probably had a strong effect on what their children did, and a lot of men and women married as virgins. The dating script was relatively easy to follow and relatively many people paired early. In the 60s an explosion of divorces began, and that complicated matters in ways that are still being sorting out.

Today there are more hookups for a longer period of time and fewer universal scripts that everyone follows, or is supposed to be following. Instead, one sees a proliferation of possibilities, from the adventurous player—which is not solely a male role—to early marriage (though those early marriages tend to end in divorce).

Dating “inequality” has probably increased, since the top guys are certainly having a lot more sex than the median or bottom guys. To some extent high-status guys have always had more sex, but now “top” could mean dozens of partners at a relatively early age, and the numerical top is more readily available to guys who want it. In the old regime it was probably possible for almost everyone to find a significant other of some sort (and I think families had more sway and say). Now that may be harder, especially for guys towards the bottom who don’t want to realize that if they’re towards the bottom the women they’re likely to attract are likely to be around the same place. We don’t all get a Hollywood ending, and Hollywood itself is unrealistic.

Guys who notice that movies, TV shows, and some books portray an unlikely or unrealistic set of dating and marriage patterns should start to wonder what the “real thing” looks like. The Game isn’t bad, though it is dated, and I expect Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller’s book Mate to be popular for reasons similar to the ones that made The Game popular.

I’ve also noticed an elegiac sense that a weirdly large number of the “pickup artists” or “Red Pill” (sometimes it’s used as two words, sometimes as one) or “manosphere” guys have about the past, and how back then it was relatively easy to find, date, and marry a woman. Much of this is probably mythological, and I don’t think most of them would be happy marrying at 20 or 24 and having two or three kids by 28 or 29.

Like all generalizations, the stereotype above are riddled with holes and exceptions—see further the oeuvre of John Updike—but I’m examining broad trends rather than specific details. Today almost no one gets married straight out of high school. Routine moves from city to city are normal, and each move often rips someone from the social networks that provide romantic connections. Families play a smaller and smaller role. Twenty-somethings, and especially women, don’t listen to their parents’s romantic advice.

If you don’t have the infrastructure of school, how do you meet lots of new people? Jobs are one possibility but looking for romantic prospects at work has obvious pitfalls. Online dating is another, but people who can’t effectively date offline often aren’t any better on—and are often worse.

Technology matters too. Technologies take a long time—decades, at least—to really reach fruition and for their ripples to be felt throughout societies and cultures. Virtually all big ideas start small.* That’s an important lesson from Where Good Ideas Come From, The Great Stagnation, The Enlightened Economy, and similar books about technological, economic, and social history.

A suite of interrelated technologies around birth control (like hormonal birth control itself, better forms of it, and easy condom distribution and acquisition) are still playing out. Same with antibiotics and vaccines against STIs. VOX offers one way to think about this in “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation.” It begins:

The last one hundred years have witnessed a revolution in sexual behaviour. In 1900, only 6% of US women would have engaged in premarital sex by the age of 19, compared to 75% today . . . Public acceptance of premarital sex has reacted with a lag.

Culture is still catching up. Pickup, game, and the Redpill, regardless of what you personally think of them, are part of the the cultural catchup. They’re responses from guys frustrated by the way their own efforts fail while some of their peers’s efforts succeed. A lot of women appear less interested in an okay guy with an okay job and an okay but not that exciting or fun life, relative to guys with a different set of qualities. Men invest in what they think women want and women invest in what they think men want, and relative wants have changed over time.

Almost every guy sees or knows at least one guy and often a couple who do spectacularly well with women. Guys who are frustrated or who can’t achieve the romantic life they want start to ask, “What are the successful guys doing that I’m not?” Pickup or game or the Redpill are different strains of systematic answers. All three may have things wrong with them, but all three are better than nothing. Saying “Women are mysterious” or “No one knows what women want” is bullshit, and guys only have to look around to notice it.

Pickup artists and those who read them are responding to a cultural milieu in which most guys get terrible socialization regarding dating and women. Pickup artists are stepping into that gap. They’re trying to answer questions in a concrete way, which most people, including their detractors, aren’t. In a review of Clarisse Thorn’s Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser I wrote:

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.

Who else is doing that? Almost no one. As with virtually any other topic, one can muddle along through trial and error (and mostly error) or one can try to systematically learn about it and apply that learning to the problem domain, along with the learning others have done.

To be sure, the worst of the group if just trying to sell shit, and sell as much of it as possible to fools. The best of the group is saying things that almost no one else is saying.

Max, Miller, and Nils Parker wrote Mate: The Young Man’s Guide To Sex And Dating, which is, among other things, a description of modern dating and a description of why so many guys do it so badly for so long. Confusion reigns, and the book promises to be the sort of fun-but-comprehensive read that can be given to unhappy, puzzled guys who understand something is wrong but don’t know how to fix it.

One strategy in response to new social circumstances is to figure out what you should do to be reasonably successful and what you can do to make yourself more appealing. This is not a male-only question: virtually every issue of Cosmo is about how to attract men, retain men, and deal with female friends and rivals. Another is to blame women, or withdraw from dating, or kill innocents because of your own frustration.

If you think half the population isn’t into you, the problem is with you, not the population. There’s an important similarity to business here: If you start a business and no one wants to buy your products or services, you can blame the market or you can realize that you’re not doing what people want.

It’s easier to blame women than it is to make real changes, and there is a tendency among some of the self-proclaimed “Redpill”-types to do that. Paul Graham says the real secret to making wealth is to “Make something people want.” In dating the real “secret” (which isn’t a secret) is to be a person people like. How to do that can be a whole book’s worth of material.

Blame is easy and improvement is hard. Short guys do have it harder than tall guys—but so what? Go ask a fat girl, or a flat-chested one, how much fun dating is for her, compared to her slenderer or better-endowed competitors. Honesty in those conversations is probably rare, but it is out there: usually in late-night conversations after a couple drinks.

I don’t hate “pickup artists” as a group, though I dislike the term and wish there was something better. Many of the critics are accurate. But so what? criticizing without recognizing the impetus for the development in the first place is attacking the plant while ignoring the roots. This post, like so many of the posts I write, is looking at or attempting to look at the root.

Feminism didn’t come from nowhere. Neither has pickup.

* Which is not to say that all small ideas will automatically become big. Most don’t. But ideas, technologies, practices, and cultures spread much more slowly than is sometimes assumed, especially among the rah-rah tech press.

Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser — Clarisse Thorn

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.

Confessions_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.

Links: The Amis obsession, Roosh’s hate mail, quiet, feminism and Ke$ha, and Alan Jacobs on taste

* The Amis Obsession.

* Roosh: “This is the fourth time where I’ve woken up and had an entire country mad at me. It does make the day a little more interesting…”

* “The Quiet Ones.” This describes me, and wanting quiet sometimes makes me feel increasingly out of place, or out of time. The Hacker News discussion is also good, and Paul Graham said this:

I think the fundamental problem with noisy people is not that they’re inconsiderate, but that they don’t have any train of thought to interrupt, and they thus don’t realize the havoc they’re wreaking.

When I was living in Providence, working on On Lisp, I told my loud but well-meaning neighbors that I was writing a hard computer book, and that made them be quiet. Ordinary people can understand that you need quiet if you’re working on some specific, hard task, like doing math homework. What they don’t grasp is that someone would want their mind to work that way all the time, as a matter of course.

* “The attention paid to terrorism in the U.S. is considerably out of proportion to the relative threat it presents. That’s especially true when it comes to Islamic-extremist terror. Of the 150,000 murders in the U.S. between 9/11 and the end of 2010, Islamic extremism accounted for fewer than three dozen.” My favorite annoying question when I hear people discussing the contemporary impact of terrorism is this: About how many Americans die in car accidents every year? If they don’t know the answer, they probably aren’t all that serious about evaluating real dangers and priorities. Sometimes it takes re-framing an issue to make sense of it.

* A highly dubious yet interesting observation:

If prominent feminist thinkers of the last century or so were to get together and design their composite “woman of tomorrow,” what would she be like?

Weirdly enough, she might look and act kind of like… um, Ke$ha.

* Alan Jacobs: “Ranking the Writers,” on how literary tastes change over time.

Links: Back to Blood and James Wood, Amazon wipes Kindle account, school reform, computing, the female social matrix, and more

* “‘Back to Blood’: Tom Wolfe forgot his own rules: Almost 25 years ago, the author made a case for the realist novel. His silly new book suggests he should reread it.” In other Wolfe news, James Wood doesn’t like it either, although “doesn’t like it” is a pretty stupid phrase, but I can’t find or fashion one better at the moment: Wood’s review is really about how free-indirect speech, registers, and personality function not just in this novel, but in The Novel.

* “A couple of days a go, my friend Linn sent me an e-mail, being very frustrated: Amazon just closed her account and wiped her Kindle. Without notice. Without explanation. This is DRM at it’s worst.” Until there are more robust legal or contractual guarantees on Kindle books, I’ll remain reluctant to buy them. On the other hand, as of this writing, it’s possible to strip the DRM from your ebooks. And it works!

* “Why school reform is impossible.” Maybe.

* “As we watch computing become a central part of the language of science, communication, and even the arts and humanities, we will realize that students need to learn to read and write code because — without that skill — they are left out of the future.

* The Female Social Matrix: An Introduction.

* This is the Era of Nuclear Rejections.

* “How American Health Care Killed My Father,” and what to do about it. Unfortunately, we haven’t done the things we should have done and should be doing, as discussed in the article.

* “Write My Essay, Please! These days, students can hire online companies to do all their coursework, from papers to final exams. Is this ethical, or even legal?” This supports Bryan Caplan’s theory that much of education is about signaling.

John Updike writes about the Game in 1965

“The puzzling quality—a basic indifference?—that makes a few men inexhaustibly seductive is a gift as arbitrary in its bestowal as an artistic talent. And, as with a possessed artist, Don Juan is as much to be pitied as envied.”

—John Updike, Assorted Prose, in an essay on Dennis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World.

This is also The Game, circa 1965. How might the world have been different if Updike decided that the “quality” “that makes a few men inexhaustibly seductive” is not “a gift” but is a skill, a set of habits and behaviors, that can be learned like any other—like becoming an “artist?”

To extend the metaphor, virtually any artist can improve at his craft, but only a very few seem to become what people later term geniuses. Yet the level of improvement available to someone who wants it is vast, which is easy enough to see by, say, looking at a writer’s juvenilia in comparison to his mature work. Updike wants to see “a possessed artist,” with “possessed” connoting some demonic power that comes from outside; I want to see the artist as driven from within, and able to improve his skill to the extent he wants to. The same is true of seduction.

Thoughts on the first 100 pages of Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot

1) I would have stopped reading The Marriage Plot if it weren’t also related to some of my academic work. It captures the feel of slogging through a 19th Century novel. As you might imagine, this isn’t a compliment.

2) Until about 100 pages in, no characters have real problems. They have fake, rich-college-student problems. I’m not opposed to such problems for the people experiencing them—I remember having similar ones and thinking they were significant at the time, too—but the real problem in the form of Leonard’s psychotic breakdown should arrive closer to page 40 or 50. Madeleine’s minor undergraduate affairs are much less interesting and hilarious than Karen Owen’s “An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics” (which is a PowerPoint document). Owen’s work feels more honest.

3) If you want a better but less hyped novel about the undergraduate experience in an Ivy-League setting, try Tom Perrotta’s Joe College. Notice that you can also get the hardback for $4, shipped, from Amazon. Notice too how Danny in that novel has real problems: he’s a fish-out-of-water, his father’s business might be falling apart, and his actions have real consequences for him and others around him. He has to master a skill (being a lunch-truck driver) and understand that skill. Failure may result in his ejection from Edenic Yale. So far no one in The Marriage Plot has a real job; they’re like characters in Jane Austen. There may be consequences coming in the latter sections, but based on the dust jacket (a trip to India to find one’s self, a possible stint in grad school), I’m not optimistic.

4) Eugenides’ earlier novels both have major conflicts and problems from the beginning: Middlesex asks how to survive and adapt as a transexual (who as a group still have major problems in contemporary society, compared to average heterosexuals) and how to flee dictator-encumbered countries, while The Virgin Suicides (probably my favorite of Eugenides’ work) asks about what really happened to the Lisbon sisters—and, because of the very clever narrative structure, we can never really find out. It’s teasing yet effective, melancholy and happy, a meditation on how we understand the past, deal with love, grow up, don’t grow up, and much more. That last bit sounds grandiose and stupid, but in the context of the novel it’s not.

5) Given the timeline in the section I’ve read so far—late 1970s, early 1980s—I keep thinking about the most consequential thing happening in the world at that time: the personal computer revolution in Silicon Valley. Jobs, Wozniack, Gates, and millions of other, less famous names were building the future. This is an insanely unfair criticism of a novel, but it’s stuck in my mind anyway, like a background process that occasionally pops an alert into my consciousness: some people are doing real things. I dismiss the alert, but it’s set to go off occasionally anyway, and I don’t have the heart to sudo kill -9.

EDIT: I was reading Hacker News this morning and found this:

The offices of Zelnick Media were packed on a recent evening for #DigitalWes, an alumni gathering for the graduates of Wesleyan University who had made their way from jam bands and cultural theory to the warp-speed world of Silicon Alley. Guests nibbled shrimp and steak skewers while taking in a sumptuous view of midtown Manhattan from the roof deck. The hosts were Strauss Zelnick and his partner, Jim Freidlich, both class of ’79, whose Take Two Interactive has produced some of the best-selling and most controversial video games of the past decade.

Same demographic, same timeline, note the mention of “cultural theory.”

6) Reading The Game has spoiled me on excessive beta-male behavior. Watching Mitchell around the beautiful and distant Madeleine mostly makes me want to tell him what he’s doing wrong. The Game was published in 2005, so saying this about a novel set before The Game’s publication isn’t fair, but the book still crystalized for me a) what not to do, b) how to eliminate certain kinds of obviously unsuccessful mating behavior, and c) how to think systematically about useful principles in men dealing with women. Being a whiny hanger-on to a person with relatively high dating market value is not good for Mitchell or for Madeleine, the object of his desire. Note that this is not limited to men: I also have low tolerance for women who spend long periods of time throwing themselves on distant alpha males who at best hook up with and then dump them. Don’t want to be hooked up with and dumped? Don’t chase alpha males whose primary attraction appears to be their unattainability. I don’t love novels whose characters’ primary problems can be solved with a simple, one-line piece of advice that, if followed, will result in the solution to said problem.

7) Nineteenth-century novels are not good guides to behavior in the 21st century. Hell, they’re not even good guides to behavior in Brown in the 1979 – 1983 period. This is as true for Madeline and for others. Literary theory is also a pretty crappy guide to real life, which may be part of the reason theory’s hold on English departments has loosened in the last 30 years. Still, perhaps the most hilarious and best scene involves Madeleine throwing Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, which alleges that there is no such thing as love, only the speaking of love, at the boy she loves.

8) I can follow the inside-baseball parts of literary theory (Barthes, Derrida, and other English-department heroes appear, mostly as signals of what various characters believe), but I doubt such things would be of great interest to anyone not in English departments. This relates to #5: it turns out that the really important stuff happening in this time period is happening among tech people, not among grad students in the humanities. A novel about someone who jumps from the one to the other might be interesting, and it could dramatize events with real consequences that don’t automatically revolve around sex and death. Intellectual curiosity is an underutilized motivation in fiction.

9) Another book to read if you want campus-war stuff: Richard Russo’s Straight Man, which is also much funnier.

EDIT: 10) See my full review here.

Keeping Romance Alive in the Age of Questionable Journalism

Keeping Romance Alive in the Age of Female Empowerment is a somewhat dumb article about women who earn more than their partners, or who earn enough to apparently “scare off” guys with inferiority complexes or generalized fear; I started laughing when I read this bit: “Ms. Domscheit-Berg, who is also active in the European Women’s Management Development International Network, has three bits of advice for well-paid women: [. . .] And go after men who draw their confidence from sources other than money, like academics and artists.”

I sent this to a couple friends, one of whom replied, “Perhaps men are simply afraid of someone named Ms. Domscheit-Berg. I bet she yells Achtung! in bed….. just saying.”

Besides, who really cares if one’s partner earns more, as long as you yourself are doing real work (that might, of course, just be the artist in me). The quality of one’s life is seldom measured in dollars, or dollars alone.

Bernard Prieur, a psychoanalyst and author of “Money in Couples,” says men who earn less than their partners struggle with two insecurities: “They feel socially and personally vulnerable. Socially, they go against millennia of beliefs and stereotypes that see them as the breadwinner. And the success of their partner also often gives them a feeling of personal failure,” Mr. Prieur said in the November issue of the French magazine Marie-Claire.

I suspect a couple of things: 1) that, to the extent this is a real problem and not another bogus trend story in the New York Times (well-documented at the link), the women involved aren’t unhappy about money, per se, but that they feel like they’re dating a guy who’s too much of a beta for them. 2) The guys involved are not actually worried about money, per se, but about something else, and are using money as an excuse for something else.

The “bogus trend story” issue, however, is a real one, because the most conspicuous absence in this article is data. Katrin Bennhold writes, “There is a growing army of successful women in their 30s who have trouble finding a mate [. . .]” but cites no evidence that this is true. So romance might be alive, but journalism, on the other hand. . .

Why Women Have Sex: Understanding Sexual Motivations from Adventure to Revenge (and Everything in Between) — Cindy M. Meston David M. Buss

Terry Teachout says that “Scientists are forever proving what everybody knows, especially when it comes to music.” Cross out music and replace it with sex, and you’ve also got a substantially true statement. One big advantage to Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: neither is exclusively about sex or relationships, but both have some unusual experiments. The former discusses how marriage and dating are like markets and how gender imbalances work, while the latter discusses the differences in cognition and choices when in aroused versus unaroused states.

In contrast, Why Women Have Sex gives us a lot of the obvious: women have sex for a variety of reasons, not surprisingly, but the authors don’t go into why a particular reason might predominate at a particular time. The reasons are mostly descriptive instead of explanatory and predictive. Reading the table of contents is almost as good as reading the book: women do it because they’re attracted to the person, for pleasure, for love, for conquest/status, for duty, for adventure, for barter and trade. One could probably figure that out from a few months of reading Cosmo.

We learn that women like men who are tall, have a sense of humor, wealthy, skilled, upbeat, symmetrical, and attractive, the last adjective comprising the earlier ones. On page 22 we learn that “A person’s mood at the time of an initial encounter is an important factor in determining attraction—positive feelings lead to positive evaluations of others and negative feelings lead to negative evaluations.” Really? I had no idea. Notice also the hedging words: mood is an “important factor,” but far from the only one. Later on the same page, we learn that “Having a good sense of humor usually signals an easygoing, fun-loving, adaptable personality.” To my mind, the word “adaptable” is the most interesting word—how does humor signal adaptability?—but the authors don’t pick up on that thread.

The idea behind Why Women Have Sex is to give a large portrait of some of the research findings out there. This is a useful service, and if I were preparing for an academic career in sexuality or sexuality studies, or if I were a journalist who wrote about such issues frequently, I’d buy this book for its bibliography. Even so, however, the book has more scientific trappings than actual science. The introduction states their study was conducted between June 2006 and April 2009 and:

Web links and online classified advertisements requested women’s participation in a study designed to understand sexual motivations. The survey itself was hosted by a database using 128-bit encryption technology to protect the information from hackers and ensure the utmost anonymity to the study’s participants.

The tech terms are poorly used: 128-bit encryption is meaningless without noting the algorithms used, although the authors are probably talking about generic TLS/SSL layers for authentication between client and server. But the larger problem is likely to come from people posing as women who aren’t women and ballot stuffers. Even if they took care of that, they still don’t have a random sample, which would be necessary to draw conclusions about the general population. This means the conclusions that they do draw from their sample aren’t useful. For more on why this is important, take a look at almost any introduction to statistics textbook; the upshot is that their data is suspect, which undermines the book’s conclusions.

I read the first third of Why Women Have Sex closely anyway, and some claims aren’t cited in their bibliography. For example, page 14 says that “DNA fingerprinting studies reveal that roughly 12 percent of women get pregnant by women other than their long-term mates, suggesting that some, but certainly not all, women pursue this dual mating strategy.” That seems improbable, which made me curious about the study backing it up. Page 14 has two research citations; neither relates to this claim.

To me, the biggest reminder Why Women Have Sex offers is why literature retains its power over time while pop sexuality books fade like flowers against the onset of winter. Literature can withstand the onset of cold time because it tells us something that can’t easily be captured by survey; to me, Madame Bovary, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Alain de Botton’s On Love have vastly more explanatory power and aesthetic interest than Why Women Have Sex. I’m reminded of this passage from Robertson Davies’ The Lyre of Orpheus:

But Darcourt was not disposed to Freudian interpretations. At best, they were glum half-truths, and they explained and healed extraordinarily little. They explored what Yeats called “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart”, but they brought none of the Apollonian light that Yeats and many other poets cast upon the heart’s dunghill.

I quote Davies quoting Yeats: there’s a very fine movement of thought there, which Why Women Have Sex lacks. Even a book like Neil Strauss’ The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists offers more explanation, and it doesn’t even have the backstop of the many but still incomplete peer-reviewed studies offered by Why Women Have Sex. In short, there are more useful ways of looking at the questions this book asks. Try reading this interview with the authors or looking at some of the other books mentioned and you’ll begin to find those more useful ways of knowing.

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