Smith Smartie Gets Man, Writes How-To Manual

Publishing’s newest relationship expert, J. Courtney Sullivan, was born on Aug. 10, 1981. The “J.” is for Julie. She is, according to her great-aunt, a distant cousin on her father’s side to Helen Gurley Brown.

Ms. Sullivan is the author of Dating Up: Dump the Schlump and Find a Quality Man, which Warner Books will deliver to bookshelves on Feb. 12. Before writing the book, Ms. Sullivan said, she had never read a dating book. Including her high-school-into-college boyfriend, she has had, by her account, three serious relationships.

The third of those, which is ongoing, was the subject of an essay by Ms. Sullivan in The Sunday New York Times’ “Modern Love” department in May 2006. In it, Ms. Sullivan described how she had overcome her habit of date-wrecking collegiate-feminist outbursts and found a worthy man. In a tagline, the essay announced Ms. Sullivan’s forthcoming book.

The man in question is named Colin Fox. Ms. Sullivan lives with Mr. Fox, but they are neither married nor engaged. “We do talk about it—though, being 25, I’m not in a rush to get married,” Ms. Sullivan said. This was over lunch on Jan. 29. Ms. Sullivan appeared neither over- nor under-qualified to serve as bait in a mantrap. She is outgoing, slightly chesty, sort of green-eyed, quite young-looking, thin yet a very little bit baby-fatty, with brown hair in a long and extremely straight bob. She is 5-foot-7 and favors ballet flats or Nikes. She finds men her own age rather embryonic. She has a black foot-long Marc Jacobs bag.

Ms. Sullivan was wearing a fairly prim but bright red cardigan sweater with small, slightly pearlescent buttons, over a black scoop-necked top that presented her chest a bit too forwardly, and jeans, as well as scuffy black flats. The restaurant was a place on 44th Street that she described as “very Condé Nast–y,” called Osteria al Doge—Venetian, eggs on the bar—and she had the penne pomodoro, no cheese or pepper, a small salad and two Diet Cokes.

Ms. Sullivan’s parents have been married more than 30 years. She was raised in Milton, Mass., and for high school she attended the Boston University Academy, on the campus of Boston University, which has an average class size of 13, a heavy Greek and Latin curriculum, and a current yearly tuition of $23,320. From there, she went to Smith and graduated after three years of study, having arrived with college credits.

While at Smith—a place she adored—she interned at The Atlantic Monthly. In her sophomore year, she broke up with the serious boyfriend she’d dated since high school. Between her second and third years of college, she spent a year in London, where she worked as a nanny for six months and at a literary agency for six months. None of this educational or vocational experience, nor any of it since, taught her how to type.

Halfway through that London year, she met a man named Russell. His accent for some time made up for a multitude of sins. They continued long distance for a year and a half. She would fly to London, and they’d see each other once or twice a month.

By the time she and Russell broke up, Ms. Smith was already ensconced in New York. After graduation, she went to work at Condé Nast, where she was a rover from mag to mag for three months. She took a job at their magazine Allure. She was worried because she just can’t wear high heels, but she found the company was less extreme than the mythology. She stayed for two years. She learned surprising things about makeup. Feb. 1, 2007, will mark her one-year anniversary of employment at The New York Times, where she serves as the assistant to the odd Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert.

After Russell, Ms. Sullivan dated. By her recounting, she dated a very successful New York writer, a successful artist who studied at the Sorbonne, a guy who worked on another floor in her office, a banker named Marc, a man who held objectionable views on pornography, a man who held objectionable views on race, a tall, handsome foreign artist 12 years her senior, a so-so tax attorney and a gorgeous Brooklyn-based rock musician. It wasn’t entirely clear from the book and the lunch conversation whether these were all different men, or whether some of them overlapped. The fog of war. There were also men obtained in bars, but they were never good for more than two dates. All told, she has been proposed to, twice.

And frustrated by all that life experience, she decided to write a book about relationships. There was an epiphany: She was visiting her friend Karin in San Francisco, and they decided, while shopping for clothes, that the problem was that they had been dating losers.

Ms. Sullivan came back to New York and had a drink with a friend she’d met while interning at The Atlantic, who was now a literary agent. She wrote a book proposal in four days.It sold, at auction, a few weeks later. The advance did not break the bank, according to her agent.

Ms. Sullivan met Mr. Fox very shortly after she decided to no longer date down; it was a setup from multiple directions. This June will, it seems likely, be their two-year anniversary. She had lived on the Upper East Side but, last July, moved into his better apartment in Soho. He had been an editor at her publisher, Warner Books, when her book was bought. He left last September to become a senior editor at Simon & Schuster. He is from South Carolina and is eight years older than her. He is “pretty well paid,” she said. He meets, for her, the definition of a quality man. “I love books so much,” she said, “a book editor is a rock star or something.”

Besides announcing her book to its most germane audience, Ms. Sullivan’s “Modern Love” essay described the writer’s surprise at arriving in Manhattan from Smith and finding that real people thought feminism quaint or silly. Her second dates would end in a standoff over body-issue politics. She could not reconcile her enjoyment of men with her anguish over their habits—who were these men ducking into porno theaters? Then she met Mr. Fox, who called her “baby doll” and held doors for her but still let her have her opinions.

“I think I probably handed in a 12-page essay that needed to be condensed down to three,” Ms. Sullivan said of the piece. The condensing was the job of Daniel Jones, who, according to the new “Modern Love” collection, published last week by Three Rivers Press, has the luxury of editing “Modern Love” from Massachusetts, where he lives with his family. “He’s an amazing editor,” Ms. Sullivan said, “but it did get—all my fault—condensed down to less, so it almost seemed like a parody of feminism.”

“The finished product comes out looking like a Lifetime original movie,” she said, tossing television’s most irregularly but seriously feminist product to the curb. “Problem, solution, and now I have this great guy who is perfect. But I struggle with how feminism finds itself in my life all the time. But I did mean for a lot of it to be a joke, and I think some people didn’t get the joke. I was trying to parody myself. And there were times where people didn’t get that and thought I was being straight up. But if I had been, I’d be a gigantic asshole.”

“Did I just give you your pull quote?” she asked. She gestured vaguely toward herself. “‘Gigantic asshole’?”

She is not. She seems very nice. But her book does begin with an assholish bang: “By the time my best friends and I left Smith College in 2003, we had graduated with honors, gotten jobs in the fields and cities of our choice, and begun thinking about how to invest for the future.” They sound like an army of Tri-Delt Tracy Flicks, their Ani DiFranco CD’s long tossed to the side of I-91, their nights long since taken back and forgotten.

The bookstore peruser will place herself in that satisfied sorority, or she will wish that those gals all come down with a stern case of cancer.

But then there is the aspirational audience, beloved of marketers and sitcom show-runners, who will come to the book wanting in. “In these pages,” Ms. Sullivan wrote on page 3, “you will learn how to locate and keep a quality wealthy man.” I will! I will! This is the language of the book as book proposal—the proposal of a product.

The product is stylishly written, and larded with thoughts from Woolf and Wharton. Because of that, it reads like something written as a joke, as if Jane Smiley lost a bet with Francine Prose to write 80,000 words on shoes and hair after a long night of drunken vomiting.

Ms. Sullivan writes that dates should take place no more frequently than once a month. She writes alternately that “So many women think that the best way to get a man is to act cool and removed” and that “If you play hard to get, I promise he’ll come get you.” There is the sense in the book of irony intended, but the how-to manual is always an irony-free zone. Either it is prescriptive, or it is a joke. Service cannot be both.

There is an undercurrent of goodness, too. She is against the waiting by phones. She is against the harms of sudden exclusive infatuation, and the foolishness of remodeling men.

She believes that one month is the minimum amount of time that a dating couple should wait to have sex, but that eight to 12 weeks is vastly preferable. This is the era of the fuckless zip.

“I don’t believe in giving a hard and fast rule,” Ms. Sullivan clarified over lunch. And also: “It’s not this issue of ‘Can you fend this man off for eight days?’ But it’s ‘Can you hose yourself down enough times to wait?’”

Ms. Sullivan writes that “[t]here is something in the DNA of all rich men that makes them like jazz,” which is not at all consistent with available evidence, and that “[d]eciding whom to marry is the most serious and important decision you’ll ever make,” which is a menacing, captivating thought.

“I think it is,” Ms. Sullivan said. She’d thought about this.

But marriage is not, literally, what it used to be. For the wild manicured girls in Manhattan, it is a convention of shelter magazines and the mini-loft and the West End Edwardian five. It is the future—nearly now!—filled with good shoes. And this target audience of lonely aspirants is adolescent enough not to fully understand that the lifestyle hits the skids permanently sometime in the third trimester for the former size twos.

Let’s not even get into the whole second-baby, leaving-the-workplace thing.

Ms. Sullivan’s parents were engaged three weeks after they met. “If any of my friends got engaged after three weeks of dating, I’d have an intervention,” she said. “I think we grew up in a culture where we realize that marriage is about love but is about other things, too. And it’s hard work being married, and that we’ll see finances being something we hear in so many marriages—money issues, so many couples fight about money. They’re probably going to fight about money if you both have careers. But you stand a better chance if they’re on the same page.

“That’s nothing new,” she said. “I’ve been hearing that from Oprah since I was a little kid.”

Fucking Oprah.

“There’s all this talk in the book of millionaires and billionaires and trillionaires,” she said, “and a lot of that is very tongue-in-cheek and overblown. But the reality of what I’m saying is: Find someone who’s your equal and someone who thinks of careers and success and finances as you do.”

Handily, at 4 Times Square, Skadden Arps is already situated on top of the ladies of Condé Nast.

Ms. Sullivan will settle on bookshelves not far from other troublesome objects in the post-feminist landscape. But even Caitlin Flanagan, cookie-baking author of To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, claimed that, despite her titular “our,” she never intended to prescribe. Aprons were only just right for her.

“Please don’t compare me to Caitlin Flanagan,” Ms. Sullivan said.

Other hideous raisins in the socio-sexual coleslaw include the babe-bagging “seduction community” explicator Neil Strauss and his book, The Game—“Sexism at its worst,” she said. And, of course, those rich-making help manuals: The Rules and He’s Just Not That Into You. Anti-feminist at best, Ms. Sullivan thought. “The Rules acts like men will prey on you sexually,” she said. “That’s not the case. Women want to have sex.”

They do. But when? Maybe the book is the story of J. Courtney Sullivan, overachiever, literature-lover and ardent but misfiring feminist, hitting the greasy wall of gender interaction in Manhattan. When people live like rats, waiting for and dating into a better financial future, and on a Saturday night, fucking when they can, their ears swivel first to the sounds of weakness. “If you feign breeziness with a guy, you have a much better chance of hearing from him again,” she said. “Maybe it is screwed up, but it’s sort of the reality of the game. But it’s true of women, too. Any guy who’s overly available, you get the creepy-crawlies from him.”

Maybe Ms. Sullivan is just here to help. Still, can she? How would she know about marriage anyway?

“Tell you what,” Ms. Sullivan said. “This is my feeling about that, now that I’ve had two Diet Cokes. My feeling is we have Dr. Phil writing diet books. The country is getting food advice from a portly man. Is it fair to call him portly?” It was agreed that it was fair. “If you care enough about anything, you can become an expert on it.” Smith Smartie Gets Man, Writes How-To Manual