In 2013 I found myself simultaneously single and on the academic job market for the first time. I was thirty, several years into graduate school and at work on a dissertation about nineteenth-century poetry and pleasure. Literary studies, my dissertation argued, was blighted at its core. It had forsaken pleasure, the very reason most people devote their lives to literature in the first place—and the likes of Shelley and Hopkins were apostles of an enlightened hedonism that promised a way out.
There was, of course, another blight on the profession. I entered graduate school in 2008, at the start of the economic downturn. The story is a many-times-told one: the retreading of the American university into a for-profit institution that runs on adjunct and graduate student labor, and, looming behind it, the disinvestment in the life of the mind by the American public. In 1970, 75 percent of university faculty were tenure stream and 25 percent contingent; by the time I sent in my first application, the two figures had flipped. In 2013, the English academic market featured around twenty tenure-track job vacancies in my specialty area, each of which had between two hundred and three hundred candidates from around the world—many of them already professors—vying for it. The jobs for which I was training hardly existed.
This was a reality that we graduate students banished to the frontiers of our consciousness, for the sake of sanity and self-preservation, as many do the knowledge of their own deaths. Picture a pilgrimage through desert expanses, or Antarctic freeze, over seven years—a trial filled with luminous discoveries, in which, perforce, you band together with your fellow travelers, forging bonds that become the best and deepest of your life—where you know early on that you will likely never make it to your destination. Small wonder that so many of us become at least mildly depressed, while others succumb to more serious forms of mental illness. The brutality of the journey also exacts its toll in more visible ways: I watched as certain of my colleagues gained or lost alarming amounts of weight in short periods. Graduate school is unkind to the body, a time of monastic restraint so vise-like and lasting, your inborn eagerness for touch can dwindle to what William Blake called the “shadow of Desire.”
How to cope with such holistic destitution? If you are kind to yourself and want to retain some semblance of mental and physical health, you seek out oases of sensuality. You go on dates and, if you’re lucky, have sex. The stretches between these can be lengthy and withering, which is why you store them away and, camel-like, subsist on them as long as you can. Like many others, though, I wanted more than oases: I wanted the lasting sustenance of a relationship. Looking for one impelled me into the world of digital dating, made me a pilgrim whose progress in that realm and the academic market unfolded in tandem. Before long, I struggled to tell the two apart.
As everyone knows, applying for academic jobs in the humanities is about as conducive to pleasure as a catheter insertion. In the field of English literature, you begin by writing up a generic cover letter that you then tailor for each school to which you apply; in addition to the letter, all applications require a curriculum vitae, three letters of recommendation, and, typically, one or more of the following: a research statement summing up your scholarship, a teaching philosophy statement, transcripts, a writing sample, and a dissertation abstract. You customize your cover letter for a given job, combine it with the requisite materials, send off the application pack by the deadline (often October 15th or November 1st), and hold your breath.
If a hiring committee takes an interest in you, they usually email you with a request for additional materials—that is, some combination of the above documents that they didn’t require initially. If on reading these they are still interested in you, they contact you for a preliminary interview. Preliminary interviews typically happen at the conference called MLA, an annual shit show swarming with panicky graduate students who’ve traveled to whatever city it happens to be in—this year, Philadelphia—on their own dime, to meet with hiring committees and take their desperate crack at entering the profession. Survive this round and you are contacted for a campus visit, where the school flies you to its campus to present a paper before the department, partake in additional interviewing, and often give a teaching demo. You are one of three finalists, generally, in this case. You often wait an additional several weeks to find out whether you will get an offer. From application to offer, the process takes around five months.
I began, in the spring of 2013, as most everyone does, by drafting my cover letter. Cover letters in my field must conform to a very specific template—an architecture, inviolable, in which each paragraph serves a prescribed purpose and appears at an ordained moment. Despite being so rigidly scripted, though, the letter proved nigh impossible to write. I stared at my laptop screen, which displayed a blank Word document containing only the letterhead and “Dear xxxxxxx.” (The identity of the addressee is frequently left unspecified in the job ad. Is the person a renowned scholar with an endowed chair? An undergraduate hacky-sack aficionado helping out with admin tasks? Does it matter?) How even to begin a thousand-word missive in which every sentence has ramifications for your life and career, and any misstep—a gauche turn of phrase, an awkward deployment of this or that theoretical watchword—could result in your application’s being consigned to the dustbin?
Bored and intimidated, I minimized Word and opened OkCupid. It had been rough going lately: I’d written six singles over the last two weeks, and all six, seeing my message, had visited my profile and decided not to reply. Wondering whether my profile was accounting for these misses, I clicked on it and scanned for weak points. Like all OkCupid profiles, it was organized into the following sections:
WHAT I’M DOING WITH MY LIFE
I’M REALLY GOOD AT
I SPEND A LOT OF TIME THINKING ABOUT
YOU SHOULD MESSAGE ME IF
I squinted at the text I’d written beneath each category. Did any of it hint I was some latter-day Jeffrey Dahmer masquerading as a hip young academic? I was a “chill, big-hearted guy with a waggish sense of humor at work on a Ph.D. in English Lit,” I loved things like Trainspotting and Anna Karenina, I could make cannoli from scratch, I played guitar. So far, so good. My pictures represented me as a sort of poor man’s Don Draper with a dark brown coif and Roman nose, who lit up around family and friends.
In all I felt okay with what I saw. Still, it can be jarring to behold one’s personality broken down into discrete morsels of desirability, to be scrutinized by a stranger on a commuter train. Like most OkCupid users, I’d answered the app’s extensive questionnaire in an effort to find the users most compatible with me. These questions range from the philosophical (Do you believe everything happens for a reason?) to the intimate (Do you enjoy it when someone uses refrigerated items on you during sex?). Once I’d completed the questionnaire, OkCupid transmuted my personality into a bar graph that neatly quantified the most salient elements of who I was: More Literary, Less Optimistic, More Artsy, More Athletic, and, my favorite, Less Suave. Now, when I looked at other users who’d filled out the questionnaire, I could see our compatibility stated as a percentage. The ideal, presumably, was to find a partner with whom you were absolutely compatible. Would this dream scenario amount to dating myself?
Like Amazon.com, OkCupid shows you, as you look at any particular profile, a sidebar that says in effect, “Users who liked this person also clicked on these ten people.” The personalities of the ten similar people are encapsulated with two- or three-word labels drawn from their respective bar graphs. While glancing at the profile of someone who’d caught my interest, I saw a person from my own university department in the sidebar, her identity summed up as Less Sex-Driven. (If the site brought a startling degree of knowledge about people I knew peripherally, it also made me privy to an astonishing amount of information about perfect strangers. Idling in the parking lot of my neighborhood co-op one day, I looked up and saw a woman walking by with her dog, whom I’d never met and likely never would, but who I knew liked anilingus and believed truth was relative rather than universal.)
I left my own profile and ran a search for singles in my area. No matter how many times one does this, the experience retains some capacity to dishearten and enervate. If you live in even a moderately sized metropolis as I do, you’re reminded that there is no shortage of singles in your city and its surrounding townships; on the contrary, there are hundreds if not thousands of them, and they spread out before you, acres of the solitary, many of them devastatingly homely: ogreish men who squint at you from selfies with dead deer or fish, or stand shirtless beside dumbbells; women spectral with makeup, their faces adorned with incipient mustache and skewered with piercings. On OkCupid they appear as a vast expanse of tiles, each displaying the user’s photo, location and compatibility percentage with you. The men’s profiles are rife with self-descriptions and statements about what they’re seeking, which betray their accumulated resentment toward women and often bizarre ideas about what the latter want: “Six-foot-two because apparently you think that’s important,” “Just want someone who’s no drama,” “Sick of getting cheated on,” and—so common—“I like to stay active,” likely code for “Overweight women need not apply.” These same men have a penchant for contacting women in that most gallant and ceremonious of ways: merely writing “hey,” which, a female friend of mine is fond of noting, is like kicking something to see if it’s dead.
Women’s profiles are more various. If there is a recurring type, it is the spray-tanned twenty-something who adores coffee, yoga, travel, has a picture of herself with a group of children from somewhere in the Global South and takes great pride in being “fluent in sarcasm.” (This last is a fascinating new development in youthful self-fashioning: Do they mean irony, or do they actually have in mind the taunting ridicule that comes with sarcasm? I try to imagine someone earnestly saying to himself, “I’m seeking a life partner who’s warm, giving, compassionate, patient and, above all, sarcastic.”) What so many women and men share (aside from a desire for a “partner in crime”) is a quixotic specificity about what they’re seeking. Between their profiles and questionnaires, you can begin to surmise the crippling idealism that afflicts so many online daters: they want someone liberal, fit, as educated as they are, very skilled at sex, funny, a parent to the children they already have, a parent to the children they wish to have, a believer in their God (or an atheist), and so on.
Just then I received a message. “Make me some cannoli,” a young woman demanded without salutation. Was it a double entendre? Was I naïve to wonder? I clicked on her profile: 29, newly minted M.D., had just moved to my city to do her residency; was family-centered, More Suave, dazzling in both scrubs and sequins. A doctor, and a fetching one at that! I felt my poverty and concupiscence in equal measure. That opening line, though—I couldn’t decide whether I was indignant or stimulated. I decided to write back: “Hi! That’s not normally something I do for strangers, but then, most strangers aren’t as cute as you. How are you liking this place and your residency so far?” She never wrote back.
I minimized OkCupid and returned to my cover letter. I felt afresh the silliness of the undertaking: to make an earnest bid for any job in which you’re one of perhaps three hundred highly qualified applicants, in a field where twenty such jobs might come along in a given year, requires a degree of moxie bordering on self-delusion. Both the academic job market and online dating, I was coming to realize, involve their participants in economies of excess, superabundance. You enter each world laden with the knowledge that you are one agent in a vast and hyper-competitive ecosystem surging with rivals; that, having captured the curiosity of a person or institution of your desiring, you’re but one of a dozen prospects they are likely entertaining alongside you. Make a false move—or simply come off as average—and risk being swept aside.
Like the OkCupid profile, the academic job letter reduces the multi-chromatic splendor of a self to a single beige that it shares with everyone else. Here are inner worlds—rococo architectures fashioned over years of contemplation—broken down into a short opening paragraph wherein you introduce yourself, indicating your home institution and the title of your dissertation, as well as the job you seek (MY SELF SUMMARY and WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR); two paragraphs in which you sum up your dissertation, articles and research interests (WHAT I’M DOING WITH MY LIFE and I SPEND A LOT OF TIME THINKING ABOUT); a couple of paragraphs in which you dramatize your strengths as a teacher and convey the myriad things you offer in the way of department service (I’M REALLY GOOD AT); a closing paragraph in which you say, in effect, “I’d love an interview; if you’re interested, here’s how to contact me” (YOU SHOULD MESSAGE ME IF).
Somehow, within the confines of this form, I had to capture hiring committees’ attention. This meant gussying up the raw material of my scholarship in language that was sexy, piquant, certain to leave them wanting more. English academics, I should explain, occupy a peculiar relation to their ideas and the language in which these are housed. Many display an erotic responsiveness to the terms trending in their field: the aptly chosen theoretical catchword, or charismatic articulation of a (preferably anarchic) thought. (I once asked a colleague whether she and her partner spent much time talking about their research together. “That’s called foreplay, Andrew,” she responded.)
Literary scholars no longer simply read; they “interrogate,” a largely joyless procedure that entails subjecting poems and novels to the interpretative equivalent of a colonoscopy. The critic uses this examination as the basis for an urgent “intervention” into politics or culture, triumphantly reconfiguring how readers conceive of both. The intervention is peppered with newfangled nouns ending in “-ity”—systematicity, discursivity, Oedipality, digitality—and sent forth to do its radical work in the world, or rather, in the cloistered pages of journals archived on JSTOR and EBSCOhost.
I stared at the screen, pondering my dissertation. Was it an interrogation, or an intervention? Or both? If it tried to resuscitate aesthetic pleasure as a dignified concept in literary criticism, my description of it also had to be pleasurable, pushing the buttons of committee members, enticing them to linger over me. What would my bar graph reveal? Less Theoretical? More Pleasure-Driven? I drafted a few sentences, then decided to look at some of the job ads from previous years. Maybe this would help me get going.
It didn’t. It turned out that the job ads had been written with an ambition that dwarfed even the most idealistic of OkCupid profiles. One sought candidates who worked on “nineteenth to 21st-century British literature” with additional expertise in “Black British and post-colonial literatures,” as well as the potential to teach at least one of the following: “literary theory, cultural studies (transnational, diaspora or digital humanities perspectives especially), professional writing.” Nineteenth to 21st-century British literature: so, Wordsworth through Dickens through Beckett through Rhys through Ishiguro? And then, as if they were afterthoughts, the bottomless mineshaft of “post-colonial literatures” (don’t ask—just all of them), and black British writers. Another—this a one-year visiting assistant-professor position without the potential for continuation—wanted someone to teach a 4/4 load (that is, four courses per semester) while serving on faculty committees, for about $5,000 per class. The position will not be renewed because you are filling in for a faculty member on sabbatical—which is another way of saying you are being temporarily plugged into a professor-shaped void.
Other ads were graced with a grandiloquence that sounded borrowed from the founding documents of some obscure republic with an outsized image of itself. One noted, “Successful candidates will be published researchers, superb writers and imaginative commanding teachers. We also seek visionary citizens of the humanities in its myriad constitutions.”
I began to see that I would have to create some simulacrum of a self—masterful, near-omniscient—that I would inhabit like a coat of mail for the foreseeable future of my professional life. How this new self would interact with, or undercut, that other persona I needed to cultivate as an online dater, I couldn’t yet calculate. How both performances might impact my actual self, I didn’t even have time to consider.
Weeks passed. In time I finished drafting the cover letter. My OkCupid account hadn’t yet yielded any dates, though, so in an effort to kickstart my love life I created a Tinder account. Now I’d be operating on two fronts.
As many know, Tinder is modeled after Grindr, the gay hook-up app, and like Grindr it advertises itself as a “geosocial networking” technology, presenting users with a stack of profiles belonging to single people who are in their vicinity at a particular instant. It is also a descendant of Hot or Not, the rating site created in 2000 that asks users to submit photographs of themselves so that other users can rate their attractiveness on a scale from one to ten.
Unlike OkCupid, Tinder is specially designed for smartphones and tablets, and, rather than having users anchor themselves to specific locations—on OkCupid, even if I spend a weekend in Honolulu my profile will remain affiliated with my hometown—Tinder shows you whatever users happen to be near you right now, wherever you are, and you to them. Its ethos is Heraclitean: life is measured in instants, no two of them alike. Foresight, commitment and a long view of time evaporate in a pulsing rush to maximize the present moment with its unique combination of hook-up prospects, induplicable, lost tomorrow.
You proceed through the profiles individually as you would a deck of cards, swiping right if you like them, left if you don’t. Because nearly everyone accesses Tinder on a device, “swiping” entails reaching with your fingers or thumb and touching the person—often their face, since most photos are head shots, but sometimes their chest or loins or legs, or occasionally the faces of their children—and rubbing your digits across this body part. If you choose to rub the person leftward, a large red icon that says NOPE will appear on the user—usually their forehead—and you will never see them again. If you rub right, a green icon that says LIKE will appear on them. If two people rub each other rightward, they’re considered a match and can then exchange messages.
To say Tinder grafts a vapid consumerist logic onto our search for companionship seems almost too easy: here is an app that presents you with a Hoyle deck of human beings you are invited to assess instantaneously, primarily on the basis of their fuckability (though some users include brief self-descriptions, you have to scroll down to see these); you plow through three score of them as you might sleeves of Oreos, glutted and half sick. More striking to me was the resemblance of this activity to the work hiring committees did in flipping through monolithic stacks of applications. I hated the thought of being tossed aside by committees on the basis of criteria I felt were ill-conceived. Yet here I was, sorting through multitudes of singles according to standards that made those of the hiring committees appear prudent, even compassionate.
There were differences, of course. But my swiping aligned me uncomfortably with those committee members who, in just a few short months, would be sizing up my application materials in the first round of reviewing. I could see them already, their laser-like focus picking out my doctoral institution, list of publications, the vital details of my dissertation synopsis. Was I hot or not?
Tinder yielded connections immediately. I had twenty, thirty, forty matches. One posed with a St. Bernard; her profile said, “Road-trip car repairs, so I’m in town for the night. Show me around?” Another sat on a dock in a floppy sun hat, hair tousled by sea breeze. “NSA-finder,” her profile said. “Because this ass isn’t going to eat itself.” (NSA stands for “no strings attached.”) Still another caught my eye and made me linger. It belonged to a woman who’d included only one photograph of herself, and a slightly blurry one at that. In it she appeared to be surrounded by people on either side, people she had her arms around—but she’d cropped them out so she alone was visible, looking off to the side and smiling. Her name was Lindsay and her profile was unusually detailed for Tinder: she was 33 and single and had a degree in classics; she was interested in Diogenes, Catullus and “fun and romance” in equal measure. She liked The Wire. She was emphatically not interested in meeting any meth heads.
We began to talk. “Cool profile!” I wrote. “I like classical lit too, and The Wire, and fun and romance, and, well, I’m certainly not a meth head. What do you do for a living?” She replied: “Well, all right! Thanks for writing. Though I started off as a classicist, I ended up becoming an architect!” She wondered what I studied as a grad student, and did I ever write things that weren’t academic? “Nineteenth-century poetry,” I answered, and noted I kept a music blog. She wrote back right away: “No way! I’ve got a thing for Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud.” Now we were humming. “What’s your dissertation about, and can you send me a link to your blog?” she asked.
Was this a request for additional materials? I sent a link to my blog, then found myself tasked with having to write a second synopsis of my dissertation on pleasure, this one in a Tinder dialogue window. I couldn’t just paste in my cover letter’s description, surely? Nor could I dumb it down in an effort to make it “approachable”; that would seem condescending. (“It’s actually about pleasure of all things! LOLZ” was off limits, for example.) I decided to keep it straightforward: “It’s all about nineteenth-century poetic theories of pleasure! In my field at least, it’s become stereotypical for scholars to denigrate pleasure—it’s distracting, it’s trivial, it’s selfish—but I use poets like Keats and the Rossettis to argue it can be enlightening and empowering.”
I sat back, took a breath and waited. Had that seemed pedantic? Just then a response came. “I love that! I’m constantly thinking about pleasure. Actually, I think a lot about dopamine, specifically: where it comes from, where I can get my next fix.” She wondered whether I wanted to get a drink that weekend. Of course I did.
We made plans for that Saturday night, but when Saturday arrived I had to postpone because a kitten I had arranged to adopt from a local shelter suddenly became available, and I needed to be at home with him during his first night at my apartment. We arranged to go out the following Saturday instead—the night before Easter.
During the ensuing week I did what’s become, in the age of digital dating, the requisite internet research, feeling all the requisite creepiness in the process. Many digital daters have had the experience of sifting through a prospect’s Facebook photo archives until, with a pang of appalled self-disgust, they realize they’ve reached the person’s tenth-grade formal pictures. The latter were, thankfully, unavailable in Lindsay’s case, though I did discover where she was from and the fact that she was an amateur runner. The next Saturday, as I pumped my bike pedals en route to the bar, I admonished myself not to betray any of this knowledge during our conversation, rehearsing my looks of surprise and captivation as she told me about that area Crazy Legs 5K she’d placed third in the previous September.
When I got there she was the only one sitting at the bar. As I approached she rose and we did some grotesquely unchoreographed combination of hugging and shaking hands. She had black hair, impish blue eyes and a wry, knowing smile. Though she mumbled at first and made only sporadic eye contact, after a drink and a half hour of talk, seeing I was kind and asked questions, she spoke more confidently. We bonded over our travels—we’d both lived in Ireland—and the talk migrated to education. She’d done her undergrad at Yale and graduate work at Stanford: it became clear that she was at least a minor genius, though in such an airily understated way it was almost preposterous. Her sister, like me a Ph.D. student in English, had grown viscerally depressed and become incapable of producing written work. Lindsay had cheerfully stepped in and written a 25-page seminar paper for her, expunging her sister’s incomplete grade from her transcript.
“How did you ever find time for that?!” I asked.
“Oh! Research is totally my wheelhouse,” she said, “so it wasn’t at all a chore. Plus I learned a shit-ton about Tristram Shandy.” She laughed wickedly.
We traipsed off to another bar nearby, where we had a third drink and then a fourth, and before I knew it we were sitting beside each other in a booth and I had my arm around her. “Can I say something?” she said after a time. I looked up. “The last time I said it, the guy got up and walked out on the spot. Will you promise not to do that?” I reflected I didn’t have a choice and promised. “I’m not really 33,” she said. “I’m 42 and I have three kids and technically I’m still married.”
I sat with this, wordless. She sighed. “I’ve tried so hard—tried everything,” she went on. “He’s a lost cause.” Another mute minute went by. “You still there?”
“Of course,” I said. “Why did you have to lie to me, though?”
“There’s no way you would’ve gone out with me if I’d listed my actual age.”
“Yes I would’ve,” I said. But I think I was lying.
I didn’t get up and walk out. I sat there yammering with her another half hour, our adjacent bodies convecting. She was awed at the abundance of prospects online dating afforded, in contrast to the dearth of options most single people had in the early Nineties when she’d last been single. She was planning to write a book detailing her online dating experiences entitled Reentry. I shared how I’d been out of the game several months, having briefly dated another academic who so mercilessly subordinated love to work that when I suggested, desperate, that we get together just once a week on a night of her choosing, she accused me of trying to “regimentalize her life.”
Lindsay looked at me, appalled, grasping my thigh as if for stability. “I’ll give you a night a week!”
“Aww,” I said. “That’s because you’re sweet.”
It got late. “Had enough?” I said.
She paused. “I kind of want to meet your kitten.”
I felt my face inflame. “Yeah, of course,” I said. “No problem.”
We paid the bill and both departed for my place, she in her minivan, I on my bike. Twenty minutes later, back at my apartment and half breathless, I set about shoveling out the two litter boxes, then swept up the fugitive gravel strewn about both. I put on a João Gilberto album, sat down on the futon and breathed. Half an hour went by. Had she flaked out? I imagined her hauling the van aimlessly around our city’s streets, weighing whether to follow through on the impulse of rebellion that had moved her to suggest this—a whim of subversion, probably even revenge, against some man I would never meet, who likely lay alone this very moment in their bed, a monument of aridity and fossilized promises.
Just then the doorbell rang and my cats scattered. I went downstairs, flipped on the outer light and she was there, beaming and nonchalant. She said something about having confused my street for another with a similar name, and I led her upstairs. Together we loafed our way to the futon and sat down.
A street lamp shone like a stage light though the window, brightening us both. I got up and drew the blinds, returning to her side. I wanted this. Grad school and the market might pummel the body into unfeeling dormancy, but pleasure was a defibrillator and could jolt it back to life. “This has been such a nice evening,” I said. “It’d be a shame if we didn’t at least have a kiss goodnight.” She looked at me with an almost ceremonial solemnity, then nodded. We kissed for the next few minutes, sedately at first and then with amplified intensity, then began to get undressed. Undoing my belt, she leaned forward and said into my ear, “I want to know all about what you’re going to do to me. Where are you going to put this?”
Caught off guard, I weighed the question in as literal and academic a fashion as one could, then said—I kid you not, reader, I actually said this, and without a trace of irony—“Your vagina?” She drew away, looking at me, first quizzically and then with slight exasperation. After a moment she recomposed herself, this time addressing me with the unflinching resolve of someone aiming a .44 Magnum: “Come on. This is your audition.”
This was my audition. I mulled this over. I scarcely knew this woman. Until three hours ago, the entirety of our interaction had been digital; now she loomed before me, a perspiring presence demanding that I prove my mettle as an improv filth-talker. I hated the thought that there might be eighty other men biding their time in her Tinder queue, a few of them wildly inventive dirty talkers who could do it in heroic couplets if called on. I had only a few seconds to act. I shut my eyes, tried to forget myself and began to talk. I asked her to imagine that the next morning had arrived, and the two of us were hidden in her closet rutting while her kids were off searching for their Easter baskets. “Imagine what the kids would think,” I said into her ear, and held my breath. Incredibly, it worked. She let out a thrilled cry that resounded through the house. When I asked politely if she could keep it down because the lady downstairs was very noise-sensitive, she said matter-of-factly, “Well if I get too loud, you can just—” The thing she suggested I could do in that event was so graphic I almost gasped.
She left early in the morning to prepare and hide the baskets. We had a last kiss and made plans to go out again the following weekend. “You’re a good guy, Andrew,” she said, then added, “you’re a good guy if you’ll see me again. You’re not a good guy if you disappear on me.” Of course I wouldn’t disappear, I said, and bade her goodbye.
The next weekend, though, she stood me up. I tooled around on my bike all night waiting to hear from her, miserable, and just after midnight she finally texted: “You’re terrific, but I need to act my age and date people as old as I am.”
I racked my brains for the real explanation in the days that followed. Surely I hadn’t blown my audition? Had she plugged me into a fantasy and, having lived it, tossed me aside? I began to perform what’s become an archetypal post-date behavior in the digital age: I logged onto Tinder incessantly to see if she’d been online. (In those days at least, Tinder showed you when a user had last been active.) I discovered she was logging on multiple times a day and hadn’t changed her stated age or self-description.
A week later, I remembered she’d mentioned that she was an avid Reddit user. The night I postponed our first date to take care of my kitten, she had started a thread to crowdsource the question of whether my cancellation alibi was legit. Still looking for answers, or at least some consolation, I decided to search for the thread. I found it with surprising rapidity, clicked her screenname and discovered two dozen other threads she’d participated in, including one just a day or two after Easter. “I met a guy I really liked,” wrote one user, “and went home with him after our first date. Now I feel attached. I like him too much. :<” This was the comment Lindsay had responded to. “That’s what happened to me!” she wrote. “I hate it!”
My life was shortly to become an unremitting series of auditions. However neatly I inhabited the performative guises my life now demanded, some kernel of my inmost being remained, straining toward some affirmation of itself—some lasting connection through which it could take root and fructify. And it kept seeming to find this. Kept encountering signs of apparent interest, forming linkages that flourished a moment and then—in a stroke of that blithe cruelty unique to digital culture, where rejection gets conveyed in haphazard texts, or no texts—were choked off. In time the soul curls back on itself, ingrown.
By October, I’d finished my job materials and started sending them out to the twenty or so schools with vacancies. Along the way I had gone on some thirty additional dates, none of which led to anything lasting. I was beginning to discover that the toil of writing to singles on dating apps, and of meeting and courting them, was to be yet another uncompensated job alongside all the others in my life—a thing that, like my applications and scholarly articles, may or may not pay any dividends.
By hook or crook, during a job season when most of my colleagues got one or two interviews or none at all, I got three, all of them with prominent institutions in great cities. It felt like a blessing and, just maybe, objective confirmation that I really was special. I had corresponded with each committee over a span of several weeks, sending them the additional materials they desired—a writing sample, a teaching philosophy—and each decided it wanted to meet with me at the MLA convention in Chicago that January.
Before the convention, I scheduled a mock interview with my dissertation director and another faculty member. I tried to live up to the advice I’d heard from another professor in our department, a recent hire who insisted that interviewees in our field needed to be like “obsessively honed blades”: deadly in their perspicacity, ready at a moment’s notice to carve up the hardest of questions. Afterward they asked me to leave the room while they conferenced, then invited me back in, congratulated me on a fine interview—it would likely be enough to vault me to the campus visit stage—and noted a couple of answers I could have approached differently. “There were times there when you came off as a little too confident,” said the faculty member. “Like me, you’re tall and white and male.” I nodded. The last thing I wanted was to come across as a mansplainer, overweening, oblivious to my privilege. But how to reconcile this with the advice to transcend my instinctive modesty and be a glittering scythe?
The MLA conference that year coincided with a polar vortex that brought the Northeast and Midwest to a standstill. My Facebook friends posted videos of themselves outside, pouring water out of glasses and watching as it turned to ice before reaching the ground. I was visiting my family in New York for Christmas and had planned to fly from there to O’Hare just after New Year’s. But my flight was canceled, so I ended up having to rent a car and drive. By the time I reached western Ohio, I-90 was shut down and I checked into a Holiday Inn in Montpelier, where I waited out the storm.
I sat in the bathroom staring into the mirror, rehearsing my dissertation spiel and course descriptions. “Many people,” I said, “have dismissed pleasure as something trivial and passivity-inducing. The more I read of nineteenth-century poetry and aesthetics, though, the more I began to uncover a contrary story…” I only half-recognized the voice I heard resonating in that tiled room. It was a voice of almost corporate slickness, the spiel the unctuous pitch of an ad man, a practiced seduction. I hated this and started again, injecting greater humanity, greater spontaneity, into my delivery. “I mean, ostensibly,” I laughed, “pleasure is why we’re all here in the first place, right?!” I splashed water across my face and started afresh.
This process continued for three days until, at last, the interstate was declared safe and I was able to drive to the conference. MLA 2014 was the convention at which, notoriously, an academic posted a Craigslist ad soliciting sexual partners for roleplay scenarios that would take the form of MLA interviews. The ad’s author was 36, “usually thought of as attractive,” and “an assistant professor at a research university with a real degree of success in my field.” He was a job candidate himself, attending MLA as an interviewee and perhaps also a member of a hiring committee from his own university. “I propose to play interviewee to your interviewer,” the ad began:
I will arrive at your MLA hotel room, in my interview suit, ready to discuss my research, my place in my field, my theoretical approaches, my teaching methods, etc.
You ask me the appropriate questions and listen, interrupt, challenge, acting as a typical faculty member of a hiring committee. (You explain that your colleagues are respectively ill in bed and unable to attend because of personal obligations but, yes, you are authorized to advance my candidacy.)
Over the course of the interview we begin to cast flirtatious sidelong glances, adopt inviting body language and inch toward one other. At the right moment one of us makes the bold move of an innocent touch on the shoulder, followed by leaning in for a kiss. We both know it’s wrong, but we’re too titillated to stop.
The final outcome is something we can discuss in advance, or figure out on the fly.
Alternatively, the man was “amenable to flipping the script” so that he was the interviewer.
The ad merely made explicit what many of us had long intuited: there were dynamics of desire at work in many of these interviews, in all that peering and inspecting. (In a lot of interviews, the interviewee is asked to sit on a bed, for heaven’s sake.) The interviews pivoted on a power hierarchy that could give rise to longing in your interlocutors. As you spoke to them, you did so with the awareness that they were half listening and half silently surveying you, taking in your appearance and all those aspects of you that can’t be gleaned from a Skype interview. If you’re a woman candidate, you experience this surveying with especial acuteness. For men, dressing up for MLA interviews is straightforward—I have a navy suit, brown shoes and a leather bag I carry with me; my female colleagues, however, have been told some combination of the following: they can only wear one “fun” accessory (colorful shoes, bracelet, scarf); they should wear a suit and not a dress, since they may find themselves sitting on a bed; they should speak in a lower register; if they are married, it may be imprudent to wear their wedding ring.
Of the three interviews I partook in that January, the first stands out. I took a taxi to the hotel where this committee was staying, and, as instructed, went to the front desk to find out which room was theirs. Having determined the room, I made my way to the elevator and began my ascent to their floor.
I reviewed what I’d learned of the committee from internet research. The chair was a woman in her sixties, a Victorianist with a particular interest in Gaskell and Trollope, whose critical orientation was powerfully Marxist. She was most drawn, she said in a feature interview on the department’s website, to literature invested with “revolutionary potentiality.” (On a different website, she and her husband had been recognized by an architectural foundation for their home, a commanding Georgian Colonial with at least five dormers.) Additionally, there was an ashen man in his seventies with an endowed chair who had been in the department since 1961, a New Critic who came of age in the days when T. S. Eliot was still revered as Christ’s vicar on earth, and whose defining work was a monograph on ambiguity and paradox in Hart Crane. The third faculty member, a Restoration scholar, was a foppish young man—he’d gotten a chili pepper on RateMyProfessors.com—whose recent journal articles urged greater incorporation of “digitality” and “systematicity” in literary studies. The fourth was a male graduate student, a modernist who looked malnourished and was, I gathered, a lackey to the elderly New Critic.
I reached the floor. The interview was to take place at 3:30 and it was now 3:26. I took a few deep abdominal breaths and made my way to the room. 3:30 arrived and the door remained closed. 3:35 came, and standing a few yards away I heard uproarious laughter emanating from within. The laughter continued, and finally, at around 3:38, the door opened and a young man, my competitor, exited and walked briskly past me.
The four committee members, their eyes still sparkling with merriment, invited me inside. The room was cramped. In it was a single queen-sized bed and, beside it, four large chairs encircling one smaller one. One of the faculty members gestured for me to sit in the smaller chair. I relaxed slightly—so I wouldn’t be on the bed for this one. I sat down and watched, smiling, as the four of them made their way to the chairs before me.
To my left sat the old New Critic, his cartoonishly large head looking as if it had been pickled and kept in a jar, only to be lifted out at rare moments—the odd panel presentation, the guest lecture—and placed on his emaciated body: in him Cartesian dualism had found its poster child. To his left sat the chair, a woman clad in a teal blouse, black pants and radiant jewelry beneath which she seemed to sag, as if weighted down by so many ingots. She shook my hand with the noblesse oblige of some emotionally remote dowager making an appearance among the great unwashed. To her left was the young professor, his stylized hair gravid with goo, in a flame-flamingo button-down and slacks. Finally, there was the graduate student, a wiry man of about thirty with facial tics that sporadically caused him to scrunch his eyes shut and contort his mouth.
The mood in the room grew more serious. “So tell us why you want this job,” said the chair.
The question struck me then, as it has every time I’ve gotten it since, as a form of playing dumb. Because there are only twenty of them, I thought. Because every month I almost go into cardiac arrest trying to make rent and pay my gas and electric bill, and I’m 31 and want to start getting compensated for what I’m trained to do.
Instead I said, “Because X University seems to embody the ideal blend of research and pedagogy, and I aspire toward a balance of scholarship and teaching myself—I’m energized by both in about equal measure. I went to a liberal-arts college and had such inspiring professors, I’d love nothing more than to be as magnetic in the classroom as they were. But I’d also love to continue the research I’ve been doing in my two articles and dissertation.”
The Victorianist dowager-chair smiled broadly. “That’s preciselyhow we see ourselves.” She cited a recent study in which they’d been the only university classified as both a research and a teaching institution.
The conversation migrated to my dissertation. The pickled New Critic peered at me over his glasses. “You’re at work on a study of pleasure,” he murmured. I nodded. “And you claim the pleasure of reading poetry has… political import?”
“I think it can,” I said. I pointed out how all kinds of nineteenth-century writers—Wilde, Swinburne, Keats, Blake—had suggested as much, and noted I was trying to establish a lineage that connected them.
The Restorationist dandy interjected. “See, that’s where I’m getting stuck. Of course there’s the whole Horatian epistemology that couples pleasure with knowledge-acquisition, riiiight?” (Riiight? is a filler academics use in lieu of um or so.) “And that gets taken up by Sidney and folks like him in the Renaissance, riiight, and then later you get Wordsworth saying knowledge is pleasure. But now you’re saying pleasure can bring about political action?” He paused, training his chili-pepper-inspiring eyes on me. “I mean, how do you get from the one to the other?”
“Well,” I said, shrugging, “I think pleasure’s always been political, hasn’t it? It never just occurs in a vacuum.”
The committee members sat in perturbed silence. I knew this was a make-or-break moment. I had to act quickly, had to be convincing though not cocky. “It’s a fundamentally Marxist idea,” I said. “Think of Marcuse in Eros and Civilization. Alienated labor in a monopoly-capitalist society causes subjects to forget their capacity for pleasure. But poetry, poetic chant, can undo that numbness through its rhythms, its luxuriance, its breath-work. It can emancipate the libidinal energies—the instincts, the impulses—that sleep in the body, energies the capitalist apparatus has repressed. On a grand scale, in a collective setting? That energy can be harnessed, converted into a weapon with … anarchic potentiality.”
A current of arousal traveled through the room, issuing in moans of “Mmmmm” on the part of at least three of my listeners. I imagined that the paintings above the bed—the imagistic equivalents, maybe, of adult contemporary music—vibrated. Even the New Critic looked momentarily appeased.
After more banter about my teaching style, during which I presented a detailed syllabus I had concocted for just the purpose, the chair asked me, “Will you be free to visit our campus during the first week of February?”
I tried to hide my excitement. “Absolutely,” I said.
I asked a couple obligatory questions of them and we all rose. I shook their hands and the chair accompanied me to the door, placing her hand on my arm. “If you don’t hear from us right away, don’t panic—even though we’ll submit our finalist choices early next week, it may take our HR department a few days to process them. We’ll be in touch soon.”
I nodded, smiling, thanked her, turned and left.
The process had begun in September, when job ads were posted; now, in the middle of January, I waited for verdicts on my interviews—not, of course, to learn whether I’d gotten any of the positions, but to learn whether I’d advanced to the next stage, that of the campus visits, which take place in February and March.
A week after I returned home from Chicago, I received emails from two of the three schools notifying me they had decided not to pursue my candidacy. Both had enjoyed meeting me; both had deemed I wasn’t the right fit. That left the school I’d hit it off with. The chair had warned me not to panic. I waited, though, with a lovelorn anxiety that deepened by the day. Would they call? Write? I went to yoga. Late at night, to divert my mind, I sat up until 2 or 3 a.m. revising my second article. And I checked the Academic Jobs Wiki—incessantly.
The Wiki is a website where job seekers can post anonymous updates about academic job openings. There is a separate page for each subdivision of a scholarly field—hence, within the discipline of English, there are pages dedicated to job vacancies in, say, medieval and eighteenth-century literature, and my specialty area, Romantic and Victorian. Below each job title one sees the following list, essentially a hierarchy of hotness:
Request for additional materials:
Rejection (no interview):
Preliminary interview scheduled (please specify: MLA, phone, Skype, etc.):
Rejection (after preliminary interview):
Campus interview scheduled:
Rejection (after campus interview):
The purpose of the Wiki is to keep applicants apprised of the progress of the job searches for the posts to which they’ve applied. If an applicant gets contacted for a preliminary interview, she can log onto the Wiki and write the date on which the school called or emailed her to arrange it. Thus, to the right of “Preliminary Interview Scheduled,” she will write, say, “11/2.”
By January 20th there had been reported activity on the Wiki for every job except the one of my desiring. Two weeks had gone by since the interview, then a third. Had what happened between us meant nothing to them? I thought of us connecting over radical politics, their captivated moans echoing through my head. I refreshed the Wiki; I languished. “Should I email them?” I asked my advisor. “Give them one more week,” she suggested.
One bone-chilling late afternoon toward the end of January I tromped through snow to my car after a visit to the gym. The sky darkened to dusk and my digits reddened. I quickened my steps and reached my ’97 Honda Accord, which I’d bought for $1,500 as an undergrad a decade before and was far too poor to replace. It was a fragile machine and, in cold weather, temperamental. Hustling into it, I decided on a whim to pull out my phone and check the Wiki. I opened the page, scrolled down to my job and saw what I’d dreaded: “Campus interview scheduled: 1/23.”
The irony was hardly lost on me, as I inched toward the end of my dissertation, that a paucity of pleasure characterized both worlds I inhabited. The spheres of poetry and romance are seemingly predicated on pleasure, fun, play—places to which we wander in search of spiritual and physical nutriment, giddy release from the mundanity of our otherwise lonely and threadbare lives. Why, after all, pursue a Ph.D. in the humanities or seek out companionship, if not for pleasure? There is little money and no power in an English Ph.D., and, in our increasingly utilitarian and scientistic society, less and less prestige.
Yet my own tribulations attest to a new joylessness that has overtaken both realms. In English academia one reaches for the obvious culprit, the savagery of the market and, with it, the machine-like productivity and self-denial that obtaining a tenure-track job—and, after it, tenure itself—necessitates. Add to this the deadening and formulaic manner in which so much literary scholarship is now written, and you have the recipe for a decidedly dour enterprise. (That I had to argue in my dissertation for a connection of poetry to pleasure is itself telling.)
But the problem must run deeper than this. After all, the humanities job market has been barren for some time now, and literary scholars have been writing desiccated criticism for decades, most having long ago abandoned any pretense of trying to reach a wider readership. The joylessness I was witnessing had anyway exceeded the confines of academia, permeating the dating world just as conspicuously. With the help of digitization, a politics of self-engineering has penetrated both spheres, making both dating and job-seeking into carnivals of unending performance and self-curation, obsessively calibrated gestures and utterances.
You craft a digital avatar of yourself and send it out into the virtual world, then spend the ensuing months and years honing and revising it; you rehearse behind closed doors again and again, giving yourself forcible makeovers until your behavior, your tics—I almost said your inner being, though this last remains up in the air, a thing you gradually learn not to think about—correspond with the simulacrum. On OkCupid and Tinder, I was “a chill, big-hearted guy,” family-centered, mild-mannered, humorously self-deprecating. In my cover letter I was a young scholar and teacher of luminous promise—bold, theoretically omnivorous, a winner of fellowships and awards, an author of multiple articles with a first book in the pipeline and a second germinating. The process is exhausting: neither in bathroom nor bedroom are you free from it, devouring dating profiles on the toilet, reaching for your cell phone when you accidentally wake at 3 a.m., checking the jobs Wiki from the parking lot outside the gym. At last you crawl, parched and ragged, to the reservoirs of intimate encounter, thinking here at last you can abandon the pretension and performance, here forget and enjoy yourself—only to learn that the performance and assessment have merely begun.
But if digitization has had a hand in ushering in our new joylessness, it is also true that we created the digital world in our own image: the perfect machinery for a culture made deeply uneasy by pleasure. “To be pleased,” wrote Theodor Adorno, “means to say yes.” He meant it in a pejorative sense: for Adorno, indulging in pleasure immobilizes us, turns us vapid and acquiescent, and thereby converts us into easy instruments of power. Many literary academics have chosen to adopt Adorno’s cynical and punishing outlook, casting a similarly cold eye on pleasure.
In my dissertation, I kept searching after the more positive possibilities of saying yes. Concentrated pleasure has a way of cutting through the veil of performativity that governs our everyday behavior; in its midst we are transported but simultaneously laid bare, our guard down, rushed to a place of pure unvarnished need. A person’s face during orgasm, David Foster Wallace wrote, assumes “that most unguarded and purely neural of expressions, the one so vulnerable that for centuries you basically had to marry a person to get to see it.” Elvis made his partners look away.
Richard Wilbur, in his poetic masterpiece, “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” describes a fountain in Rome adorned with joyous, cavorting fauns, symbols of a pleasure-driven life. “Yet since this all / Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,” he wonders, “Must it not be too simple?” Wilbur’s answer is that the fauns’ pleasure is imbued with a complexity that outpaces asceticism: “They are at rest in fulness of desire / For what is given, … Reproving our disgust and our ennui / With humble insatiety.” I know of no phrase that more elegantly captures the humility of pleasure than humble insatiety: in taking pleasure in a thing, we signal our willingness to delight in “what is given,” implicitly communicating that it is good enough for us and that we stand to be nourished by it.
Moreover, as Wilbur suggests at the poem’s end, pleasure can be laden with a spiritual wisdom that would bring profit to even the otherworldly St. Francis:
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow
Before the wealthy gate
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this
No trifle, but a shade of bliss—
That land of tolerable flowers, that state
As near and far as grass
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand
Is worthy of water: the dreamt land
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.
To those possessed of the imagination to see the things of this world rightly—and the humility to open themselves to them—those things may be charged with a sacral meaning that, if it begins on the pulses, can tutor the soul into apprehension. The “grass” is Walt Whitman’s grass, the commonest of earthly phenomena, but invested with an elemental wonder suggestive of a reality behind or beneath it. Pleasure—homely, mundane pleasure—turns out to be our compass, pointing the way toward terrains of understanding unavailable through self-abnegation.
Two years went by, bringing MLA conferences in Vancouver and then Austin. I went to both. The interviews at each conference went well, I thought, but none led to campus visits. More than half the committees—some having asked me to fly to a foreign country to speak with them for thirty minutes—never bothered getting back to me. (Nor, for that matter, did the committee with whom I hit it off in Chicago.) I wrote two or three committees for feedback afterward, and they replied that while I’d interviewed quite well, I hadn’t advanced to the finalist stage “because of the hyper-competitive nature of the market”—or, alternatively, because I wasn’t the right fit. To date I have partaken in nine interviews in three cities since 2013: the trips have cost me around $3,500.
I became an adjunct, first at my home university and then at liberal-arts colleges relatively nearby. I set down roots at these colleges as if against my will, imagining a future with them even as I knew our days together were numbered. I learned to live with the corrosive ambiguity of post-Ph.D. life, a fate that English academia—which immediately indoctrinates its initiates with the Derridean notion that life is a condition of epistemological undecidability—had, fittingly enough, equipped me for. As all adjuncts do, I waged a daily mental fight against a doubt that can derange: Would this work turn out to be a career for me?
I went on some forty more first dates, some of which led on to second, third and fourth outings. If campus visits eluded me on the job market, in the dating world they—or their equivalent—came with some frequency. There was the 25-year-old who dressed like a vaudeville character and pursued me so ardently I was almost alarmed; after we had dinner one night she led me to her bed, mounted me and cried, “I did it! I’ve been trying for so long!” The next day she texted, “I can’t see you again, Andrew. I just moved here and I’ve realized I need at least another year to get my bearings before I’ll be ready for anything.” There was the science teacher who looked me in the eye over our first date and said, with terrifying earnestness, “I am Walter White.” That night, in bed, she confided that her brother was dying, and we lay awake until 4 a.m. talking, I comforting her as best I could. Two days later she texted me, “I’m searching pretty furiously for a husband, and don’t sense we have the crackle of chemistry to justify going out again.” Then there was the young academic writing a dissertation on pain—the yin to my yang—but this connection proved just as short-lived.
I kept hoping for some measure of the commitment that seemed, whether in love or work, like the precondition for a pleasure that could be redemptive. I didn’t want to accept a view of life as an archipelago of isolated encounters, or accede to the logic—reinforced by the utility-driven instruments colonizing our lives—that people mattered for their short-term use value. Still, I saw that as Tinder and other apps became an integral component in the new sharing economy with Uber and Airbnb, so bodies were taking their place alongside cars, apartments and offices—briefly dwelled in, tried out, passed along.
Some months after MLA 2016, in one of those spurts of delusional sanguinity that online daters periodically muster, I reactivated my Tinder and OkCupid accounts. One morning I sat at my desk with my iPad and coffee, scrolling through my new lineup of Tinder matches, when suddenly one of them reached out to me unbidden. “Hey!” she wrote. “How are you?!”
I clicked on her profile: a dashing brunette, 28, who looked as if she’d stridden out of a Lands’ End catalog. In her pictures she was playing croquet, eyes grimly trained on a wicket, or sharing a belly laugh with girlfriends, or, in a last photo, reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time in Harry Potter glasses with a look of mock studiousness. Piqued, I wrote back: “Hi! Doing okay. You?”
She responded immediately. “I just moved here and I’m thinking I’m going to like this place a lot. Guessing you’ve been here a while?”
“Eight years. Moved here in ’08 to do a Ph.D. in English, which I’ve since finished. What brings you here?”
Maybe five seconds elapsed. “What’s your favorite color?” she asked.
That’s funny, I thought. What a peculiar evasion. “Um, turquoise? What’d you think of Hawking’s book? That’s one I’ve long felt I should read but never made time for!” Sheepish emoji.
Within moments: “OMG *finally* a decent guy on here. Was giving up hope. Who are u rooting for in the game this weekend?”
I squinted at my iPad. “Sorry? Which game?” I paused. “Also, you can’t give up hope—I mean it. That’s not allowed!”
“Got 2 switch 2 texting now, follow this link so we can keep talking?” She provided a link to a website that requested my personal information.
How had it taken me this long to realize I was flirting with a robot? I terminated the conversation, heaving a sigh and muttering some half-articulate prayer, then went back to swiping.
Art credit: Linzi Silverman