[28 February 2007]
“Meet the new me. Like the old me only less nice after three ads without any sexual intercourse. 42-year-old fruitcake (F). Box no. 2611.”
—personal ad, They Call Me Naughty Lola
If the well known cliché that people value intelligence and humour most in a romantic partner is true, then it's hard to see why the personal advertisement writers in
They call me naughty Lola are single.
This “reader” of personal ads from the London Review of Books, compiled by LRB advertising director David Rose, features some of the most hilarious, literate, pathos-filled prose you will ever read. All in the form of short pleas for romance.
As Rose points out in his introduction, the standard lonely hearts ad is a fairly bland affair—a consequence of fear of rejection and the reductive format of a sub-100 word description. LRB readers, for one reason or another don’t follow the regular “M, 52, NS, GSOH, long walks on beaches” template. In fact, the degree of idiosyncrasy and creativity present in these brief passages is astonishing.
Rose has selected an amazing array of gems—ranging from the simply oddball to the genuinely profound. He has also done a remarkable job as editor. By collating ads along similar themes, Rose allows each “chapter” to build its own comedic momentum, as if a stand-up comedian were riffing on a particularly clever theme. Add to that the bizarre and informative footnotes (and an appendix listing all of Evil Knievel’s jumps and injuries chronologically) and Rose has produced a book that thrills on multiple levels.
It’s curious to think about how the column’s unique style got started. Certainly the competitiveness of lonely hearts columns would lead for people to increase the quirkiness or idiosyncrasy of their ads once the tone has been set (after all, an ad must be made to stand out from the pack). But why on earth did someone in the first column ask for a “contortionist who plays the trumpet”? Apart from the obvious?
Recurring themes throughout the collection are extraordinary levels of self-deprecation and profound pessimism. Male writers are more than willing to draw attention to their baldness, their cohabitation with their mother and their love of Bachman Turner Overdrive. Women feel free to disclose their neuroses, prescriptions, and monthly cycles. None of this seems appropriate material for seeking to attract a mate, but it’s gut-burstingly funny nevertheless.
In a sense, the honesty and bluntness of the ads are infinitely more revealing and open to analysis than your run-of-the-mill personals. For all the humour on display, there are sad undercurrents. These ads were not written merely for the voyeuristic pleasure of D-list literary critics. The people behind these stories are often in genuinely lonely places and sometimes the self-disparaging remarks are only partially tongue-in-cheek.
What Lola suggests is that the highly educated, intelligent readership of publications such as the LRB is a pretty disillusioned lot. While the average personals ad writer featured in this collection has retained a sense of humour around their circumstances, the sense of failure and inadequacy is palpable.
As anyone over the age of 11 can attest, romantic failure has a profound effect. The ageing process is often accompanied by disillusionment and building resentment against a world that apparently fails to see (or at least acknowledge) our worth. Particularly for people who do not make good first impressions—whether due to an unattractive exterior, extreme shyness or Bachman Turner Overdrive t-shirts—the dating world can be cruel.
Unfortunately the world of lonely hearts dating is not substantially less cruel. The brutality of rejection can be lessened at a distance, but the significant self-disclosure by advertisers can increase it greatly. Perhaps this is why so many LRB lonely hearts adopt a “couldn’t care less” attitude or deliberately self-sabotage by highlighting only undesirable traits. For a hilarious book, Lola is certainly ripe for psychoanalysis.
An optimistic take on Lola would be that it demonstrates that quirky, intelligent misfits are not alone. And Rose points out that the column has been successful in pairing some of these thwarted lovers. One can only hope that there will be more happy endings in the offing.
While little consolation for the forlorn LRB reader, changes appear to be afoot that may improve the romantic chances of interesting, quirky singles. The print-form lonely heart column has been making way for some time to the world of Internet dating. While the writers in Lola are mostly over 30 and include people purportedly living in nursing homes, the younger generations are embracing the internet in record numbers and the possibilities are considerably larger. After all, LRB circulation is in the tens of thousands. Internet usage in the United Kingdom alone is in the millions.
As Israeli academic Aaron Ben Ze’ev observes in his book Love Online, people with physical or social disadvantages in everyday life may find that their wit or personal charm carries the day in the typographical world of the Internet. The elements on display in LRB personals—attention grabbing humour, self deprecation, and references to potential shared interests (including automated ticketing machines, it seems)—are often present in online matching and networking sites.
Perhaps the world is becoming that bit more accommodating for balding classics professors and caustic marketing executives everywhere.