March 03, 2005,
The phenomenal success of the bestseller He's Just Not That Into You suggests that perhaps this rather brilliant Theater of Cruelty concept could be expanded beyond advice to the lovelorn to self-help categories in general. For dieters, the hot title could be Maybe You're Just Too Fat; etiquette guides called Probably They Really Hate You would fly off the shelves; and the boring old health-and-grooming section might be livened up by Yes, You Do Have B.O.
At this point, the book has become such a part of the language that its concept has expanded beyond dating. After Susan Estrich's increasingly unhinged series of e-mails last month to Los Angeles Times opinion editor Michael Kinsley, who'd failed to accommodate her shrill demands to run more (lefty) women writers in his section, a friend called me up to suggest that maybe someone should do Estrich a favor and send her a copy of He's Just Not That Into You.
Authors Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, Sex and the City writers who parlayed Behrendt's blurted-out comment in a meeting to an episode and then this book, have touched on some basic, painful facts of life: When men want to call you, they'll call; when they want to see you, they'll arrange to do so. For some reason, plenty of women still need to have this spelled out to them.
For example, a naif relates that "a really cute guy at a bar" gave her his number, which was "kind of cool, that he gave me control of the situation like that. I can call him, right?" Behrendt: "Did he give you control, or did he just get you to do the heavy lifting? What he did was a magic trick: It seems like he gave you control, but really he now gets to decide if he wants to go out with you or even return your call... Don't let him trick you into asking him out. When men want you, they do the work."
Hard truths like this can be depressing indeed. But lately I've been wondering whether they might go down easier when gleaned not from the blunt tones of contemporary self-help dating guides, but from other sources. Take veteran Hollywood manager and producer Bernie Brillstein, always a fountain of useful advice. His latest book (written with David Rensin), The Little Stuff Matters Most: 50 Rules From 50 Years of Trying to Make a Living, is ostensibly about how to behave in the business world. But much of his wisdom could just as easily be applied to romance.
"There's a life span to a deal," he writes. "If no one's called you back for three or four days and said, 'We're in the ballpark,' there'd better be a very good reason, or it's not a deal... Hope's a nice thing, but not if someone's jerking you around. Forget it. It's already over." Or: "It never gets better than the first date metaphorically; sometimes literally. The mistake people make is they think 'The Moment' is forever."
Actually, occasionally it does get better, in my experience, but his point is well-taken: You can't expect people to be on their best behavior constantly eventually you've got to work with them, or live with them, or just deal with them as they really are. And first encounters do offer a quick opportunity to cut your losses: I'm thinking here of a guy who showed up 20 minutes late to lunch and then let me pay half the $21.87 check.
Brillstein's not much for parties "On your deathbed you'll never say, 'I wish I'd gone to one more cocktail party and seen Mike,'" he writes but then, he's in his 70s and is talking about business parties. Also, in Brillstein's Hollywood circles, "Mike" probably means Ovitz or Eisner, names not usually associated with a whale of a good time.
Social parties are another matter, though, and this is where Dorothy Draper's delightful Entertaining Is Fun!, originally published in 1941 and recently reissued by Rizzoli, can provide useful alternatives to either chasing men or sitting home waiting for the phone to ring while sadly reading books like He's Just Not That Into You.
Draper was a tireless crusader against what she calls the Will To Be Dreary, the anti-life force often manifested in the feeling that you're too tired to go to a party after all (much less even think of giving one), and really, why not just stay home and mope around in your bathrobe with a pint of Ben & Jerry's? The opposite of this dismal state she terms the Will to Live, and "you can't afford to let up on it a single day of your life." Even just dinner with your husband, Draper advises, can be "fun for two."
Entertaining Is Fun! is filled with useful advice about how to have a good time, and Draper is ruthless about avoiding a bad one. Here she is, for instance, on planning a weekend party: "You may want most awfully to ask Jane (who has just been divorced), but unless you have an extra, unattached man coming for the same weekend, don't. However fond you may be of Jane, don't ask her to bring a man with her. In the first place, no man ever wants to be taken anywhere by a woman, no matter how devoted to her he may be..."
Harsh, but, unfortunately, usually true; I'm thinking here of a young guy I know who called recently to complain about another woman friend of his, who'd wanted him to be her date for a birthday party, way out in the suburbs, for a 60-year-old ophthalmologist. (He found an excuse not to go, surprise, surprise.) And if modern hostesses would make an effort to find extra men, instead of just overpopulating their parties with women (which is usually what happens), think how much more fun the Janes in their lives would have.
Another charming reissued book (from Rizzoli's Universe imprint), also with much useful romantic advice for modern readers, is The Nice Girl's Guide To Good Behavior. Written in 1935 by British journalist Monica Redlich, the tone here is as tartly ironic as a Nancy Mitford novel. Unlike the authors of He's Just Not That Into You, Redlich, who moved in more sophisticated circles, makes allowances for complicated neurotics.
"You must remember one infallible rule: Some men are shy, and some men are not shy," she writes firmly. Therefore: "Sometimes an otherwise delightful person may carry shyness to such an extent that he will not even realize that he does want to see you again. You must, of course, help him. Very likely you are shy yourself, but this is no time to think about your own little troubles..."
Not that she isn't as firm as He's Just Not That Into You about cutting your losses. "You may, for instance, think that So-and-so (a very ordinary man) is the most beautiful person you have ever set eyes on," Redlich writes. "And yet So-and-so is (shall we say) a preparatory schoolmaster, with very little money apart from his pay and with very little interest apart from small boys. This is not love."
Attentive readers of The Nice Girl's Guide will never foolishly chase after men who are just not that into them. "Some underbred girls may have the appalling lack of dignity to imagine themselves in such a position loving a man who does not love them, loving someone unsuitable, and so forth," Redlich notes, and you can practically see her needing to lie down with a cold cloth just imagining the horror of such a situation.
"You know that unless it is mutual, and suitable, and with marriage as its only conceivable aim, it is not love at all," she continues. "You will act accordingly." A bit bossy, perhaps. But almost 70 years later, this advice still rings true.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.