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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Matt Forney's TROLLING FOR A LIVING, reviewed: Two different horses you can ride into the same abyss, and what do you do for entertainment while you're down there?

So, while it is obviously unfair for a crank of my advanced years to review the work of a fellow in his mid-twenties, the rest of Matt Forney's age cohort is apparently too lazy to review his re-edited re-release of TROLLING FOR A LIVING, a collection of the early-days pieces from his current blog,, and elsewhere. So the job falls to me.

Harumph. I shall try to proceed with a minimum of elderly bloviation and he'll-get-betters.

Although, actually, he will get better, probably throughout his life. Because he has that refreshing quality that makes the difference between a perpetual blog hack and a young writer who actually has a shot at producing one or more good novels before he dies.* I'm talking about a quality besides that of actually reading novels—which should go without saying, but it doesn't, alas; anyhow, to wit:

He's capable of updating his opinions when he gets better evidence, is exposed to a more reasoned opinion, or has a new logical revelation of his own.

This is a quality which most children enjoy, but they only get to keep it till they decide on an identity (nerd or jock?) or a political team (around fourth grade, on average these days), and then it goes out the window. They'll keep waving whatever little flag they happen to have in their mitt at the time till you rob it out of their cold, robbed tomb.

But if you keep up the habit of continually examining the evidence and your own beliefs beyond a critical age of, I'll throw out 23, more likely than not you'll keep refreshing your browser and flushing out the old cookies pretty much till you go senile, at which point no one's going to listen to you anyway.

So, for all I know, I may write something nice about something in the book that Forney no longer agrees with, and he'll punch me in the face.

Oh, wait, no he won't: I'm happy to note, as an example, that he's recently reversed his former judgment that it's OK to hit women. Aside from the fact that I have a vested interest in not being punched in the face**, one of the first tenets of civilized life is "don't whale on people smaller than you."

Yes, I am aware that I'm supposed to be lining up to lynch this person because I'm female.

But I'm too grumpy these days for mob violence; you won't see me near a mosh pit anymore, either.

More seriously, no serious reader—that is, a reader to whom good narrative is water in a desert—can afford to care about a writer's fetishes, dietary preferences, addictions, favorite sports team, dog or cat person, gender (or whatever the fuck they call it now), hygiene (you're here to read me, not to stick your nose in my armpit), favorite political team (especially that one; does any serious reader really believe that reality is salvageable in any case?), cooking abilities, dress sense, day job, hairstyle, or eye color, unless their clumsy polemics or hobbyhorses screw up the writing. (Can you read a murderer? "You got me," says the ghost of Wild Bill Burroughs to his many fans; "define murder.") I get a kick out of Forney's stuff, it's usually food for thought, and he hasn't even killed anyone as far as I know.

If you have no idea what the last couple of paragraphs were about, Google Forney's accursed name.

Forney is currently a blogger who's loosely writing within, to loosely employ a couple of words he hates—hey, just because you keep examining your assumptions doesn't mean you don't get to be a curmudgeon; in fact, you get to be an UNPREDICTABLE curmudgeon, which is even more fun—the manosphere, or the PUA thing, or the beaver-trapping conspiracy, or whatever you want to call it.

(Some people just call it wicked: Forney recently wrote an article called "The Case Against Female Self-Esteem"...

...which more or less tried to tell the loutishly entitled young ladies of his ghastly generation this:

"Do your job, 20-year-olds"

...but it was mostly heard as this:

"Oh my god, 20-year-olds.")

You'd think the manosphere, with the premium it puts on hedonism and sex—sometimes even, as an ideal, fruitful sex—would have nothing in common with an overtly bleak, anti-fruit philosophy of the abyss such as antinatalism. And maybe I happen to have an antinatalist hammer, so everything looks like a skull-shaped nail. But I can't help but see a strange and interesting parallel between a working assumption that many mano-bloggers seem to come to (pardon me if I err) and a more explicitly stated theme of antinatalist writing.

To wit, see the horror writer Thomas Ligotti's rather entertaining antinatalist treatise, THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE.

Ligotti posits that we are nothing but puppetlike masses of meat that have somehow become so unfortunate as to imagine we have individual identities, when in fact our thoughts and actions are dictated by biology, evpsych, and happenstance.

In short, we're predictable, suffering, desirous meat robots who have foolishly stumbled into the painful illusion that we are unique and free-willed and important. We only go through the motions because Lord DNA (or the near-sentient malice that Ligotti, in his fiction, often senses at the heart of the universe) has programmed us to fear death and seek foods and mates to create offspring so it can continue the cycle, for inscrutable (or no, or evil) purposes of its own.

Sound familiar?

At first blush "game" may appear to imply the idea that women only are mere meat robots: you can learn the levers to press to get past their reflexive shit-testing and other relatively predictable meat robot moves and get them to be yours. And then you, starring in the film of your life as yourself, sit back and enjoy.

But what are "you"?

As my fellow weird old coot Andy Nowicki once mused, one can't help but ask: Well, if a man wants that meat robot badly enough to go through all of those shenanigans, then what is a man? (Obviously I'm performing some acts of quick and dirty exegesis here, but look, I'm trying to get to the damn review already.)

There are two obvious differences between the antinatalist response to the "meat robot problem" and that of the manosphere; the first is their answer to the question "So what caused this great waste of human emptiness?"

Manospherians think the problem is that modern society has become degenerate and vacantly consumerist, creating a vast population of human females who are no longer interested in romance, preferring to use their bodies to milk men for their material resources, making men more cynical in turn... whereas antinatalists think that no human undertaking was or ever will be "generate" or constructive in the first place, and it's probably human nature itself that makes men and women eternal adversaries. To my mind both groups have a cogent point; after all, a classic pessimist trope is the lament that we're just going in circles, which implies that certain points on the circle can certainly be worse than others. (And a noble mind, particularly in a less-bad era, will always try, though knowing it will likely fail, to overcome its human nature; a romantic idea, but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

The second difference, relating to people's reaction to the emptiness, is more immediately interesting, because it sums up, in a modern idiom, the two main polar responses that people have always run toward once they've faced the ugly truth:

Either you piss down on it all from a great height, or you get yourself ready to better PARTY!...

...OR you wedge yourself into a combination of the two, often admixed with the rictus grin we call humor, and a bit of desperate romanticism.

I'm sadly fond of the desperate romanticism part—not to be confused with the unexamined hippie romantics you associate with the likes of Rousseau and John Lennon. A realist romantic is clawing at straws. Behind every antinatalist's rage against the DNA machine, one suspects there's a desire to believe that "love" exists and matters; behind the stilted tone that PUAs' breezy lists of game tips and tricks occasionally take on, I sometimes think my hamster hears a velveteen rabbit hoping hopelessly to get loved till it's real. Hedonism and suicide are two sides of the same coin, as Epicurus could have told you already.***

Yep, that's all a bit glum.

But without some form of critical apparatus, it's hard to review a book beyond grunting "me like," and since a majority of TROLLING FOR A LIVING's witty articles are advice-based and focus on topics like becoming a better man and, incidentally, picking up suitable girls, my chances at judging the book by how well its advice will work in the field are oh my, I have ovaries.

After rereading the essay "No Girls Allowed," in fact, I feel a bit guilty for lumbering in here and reviewing this stuff at all—but once again, no one else seems to have done it, so... cripes, it's not like the blog itself lacks for readers, commenters, and stalkers; don't they have their own blogs? Even I have a blog, and as its title may have betrayed, I loathe the very idea of a blog-centric biblioverse.

Also, I was distracted from my guilt by an irritating coincidence: in the same essay, Forney notes that his mother dislikes his writing because he sounds "bitter," and I quote:

She didn't say that I was wrong, she said that I was bitter. She wasn't concerned with the factual content of my blog, she was concerned with the emotional state that my writing style instilled in her. 

Goddamnit, "bitter" is EXACTLY the same word, repeatedly thrown at me a full twenty-three-odd years ago, that soured me on my one and only brief attempt to get a sheepskin for creative writing. Not "I'm bored and you spelled everything wrong," just a completely irrelevant "You sound like you're mad!" (Well, of course I was mad; I was washing dishes and bussing tables at the time for a private dorm, incidentally cleaning up after the stinking messes of not one but three of the wastes of breasts, money, and oxygen who were taking that very same class. And one of them was the main anti-bitterness partisan, may she rot in Hell for all eternity. Of course you don't like bitter writing: YOU HAVE NO MATERIAL.) Are people still seriously trying to use this argument? What writer of any use, anywhere, EVER, has not been pissed off? Why else, besides wanting to get a cake college degree in a subjectivized subject, would anyone do something that's such an ill-paid pain in the ass, genius?! I'm blown away that this is still going on. It reminds me of the way Frederic Beigbeder's 1990s crap advertising jargon in 99 FRANCS sounds exactly like the crap advertising jargon we use three decades later, on a different continent, no less... plus la merde change, plus ca pue, to BITTERLY mix my metaphors...

ANYWAY, deep breath, there's plenty of material in the collection to interest (if not go down consistently well with) mixed company. This is one of the reasons I hope Forney doesn't wind up permanently ghettoized; he may be angry but he also has the gift of empathy, which is essential for writing anything but navel-slurping.

 But according to his own, unfortunately sage, advice in another collection, WRITING FOR PEANUTS, the best way to build an audience in this no-longer-futuristic blogworld dystopia is to find a subject you're good at writing about that draws a crowd, and stick to it till people's little brains are able to categorize you.

However, then they expect you to keep doing that and only that. And this limits your already-slim chances at ever making a living with your writing, not to mention eventually boring the hell out of you. I've seen other writers (er, antinatal-ospherians, for instance) struggle to get out of similar ghettos, for lack of a better word.

It's like being Mark Hamill.

Unfortunately, non-bitter writing is so well-backed these days that I suspect anyone who writes anything BUT crap is doomed to his own little corner of Luke Hell anyway.

But aside from his unusual propensity to draw in actual trolls, Forney has distinguished his take on his subject with his willingness to be unmasked: he already showed his hand as a Velveteen Meatrabbit when he subtitled his blog THE MAN WHO SHOUTED LOVE AT THE WORLD. Agree or disagree with his life and love advice to women of his age cohort, he's repeatedly said he's giving it in a helpful spirit, and although he does have a filter, it's nice and porous, so one is wont to take him at his word.

In short, you could call him a romantic. Albeit a curmudgeonly one.****

And in these spheres of potentially bleak and repetitive debate—where participants intuit that their own human "being" may be the marionette of evolutionary psychology, biology, and/or some devious god—the best writings are the ones that kindly trick the reader into imagineering some flesh onto the marionette for a while, without resorting to the usual played-out type of lie.

Such a trick is a lovely reprieve. And aside from the self-conscious tricks of comedy and romance, it very largely depends on writing style.

And despite the blog-ghetto, Forney's writing style is coming along at a crisp pace, as shown by the pieces in TROLLING FOR A LIVING: Most of them are very funny, most were just written in the past couple of years, and by comparison his current blog writing is quickly getting sharper. (A very recent clip: "When you transplant the Augustinian story structure into a secular setting, it always, and I mean always fails.... Please don’t try and tell me that your existential ennui is equivalent to getting butt-raped by Satan for all eternity, because it isn’t.")

Style, as I mean it here, is not to be confused, as it usually is, goddamn you all, with the opposite of substance. Certainly, "pyrotechnics" is an antonym for substance, but it isn't a synonym for style. In fact, good solid style is absolutely dependent on substance—especially when you mean to fill in for a moment the emptiness of the universe; virtual nothing on top of real nothing is not going to cut it. In TROLLING, Forney shows he already has the trick of winding substance into the folds of style, without the reader's being too aware of how he's manipulating either:

The idea that women should shun male attention is anathema to the very psychology of human beings. Normal women want to be objectified (even if they have trouble admitting it) because objectification is validation, and validation is a basic human need. The average woman gets more sexual attention than the average man, but don't kid yourselves, guys; we dream of girls falling at our feet, eye-fucking us.

The alternative—being ignored, invisible—is repulsive to the human psyche, so repulsive that the threat of it is one of the easiest ways to manipulate someone.

I'm not going to go into a tedious tally of Latin-based word count versus four-letter anglosaxon-ism, but the mix of the two types of words here is both necessitated by the subject matter and worked into a strong musical rhythm through a combination of the author's passion for the substance and a good ear. 

You don't get a good ear by watching people type acronyms from their Androids onto Reddit all day, kids.

I also think it's fair to say that much of TROLLING FOR A LIVING qualifies as "insight porn." This idea, which is exactly what it sounds like, was developed by the antinatalist intellectual Sister Y here, on her blog The View From Hell... and it's an idea which, come to think of it, reminds me not a little of the red pill metaphor, albeit Y is less averse to autistic and depressed frames of reference. Huh.

For example, in "Nobody Gives a Fuck About You," Forney pornfully writes:

Paranoia is narcissism. Believing that everyone is out to get you assumes that you're important enough for anyone to care about.... Unless you seriously, actively go out of your way to ruin someone's day, they'll give you as much thought as a bug splattered on their windshield.

Yeah yeah, that smarts, but the jolt of pleasure delivered by a glimpse into the machinery of social reality outweighs the little owie. And he goes on to explain how being a gnat actually gives one a certain kind of freedom.

Although he writes in the tradition of the manosphere, Forney really doesn't seem to give a shit whether his insight porn properly toes the party line—which may well in itself be a tradition of the manosphere, but he seems to take it most thoroughly to heart.

In "Women are Just as Socially Retarded as Men," for instance, he goes after the widely accepted idea that "shit testing" is a natural outgrowth of evolutionary psychology. "Shit tests" are the obnoxious things that human females say to potential mates in order to test how much shit the latter will take, in order to suss out and reject the weak; Forney colorfully doubts that this would have made a terribly good reproduction strategy for earlier female hominids:

Can you imagine a woman getting away with shit testing a guy back in prehistoric times?

Cavewoman: Me no like you. How big your boom-cannon?

Caveman (grabbing cavewoman by the throat, menacing her with club in the other hand): If you no want make bang-bang, me make you make bang-bang. 

...This is why trying to pass shit tests is a stupid idea. Pre-Agricultural Revolution, any woman who behaved like women today do would have been raped, then possibly had her brains dashed out on the nearest rock to make an example of her.

In other words, modern people are so far gone into neuroticism that even those who are versed in practical ev-psych sometimes interpret other people's neurotic modern shit as being perfectly natural cave behavior. Fair enough. (Although there would have to be an awful lot of brain-dashing to make up for the surviving rape babies who would presumably be carrying the shit-testing gene... although I'm guessing these theoretical shit testers were so vile overall that they didn't get much help from the other females in the village when it came to nurturing their spawn. Knowing primates, the other females may have even surreptitiously eaten them. Heh heh.)
So far, Forney's forays into fiction have been similar to the above: outgrowths of an essay subject, short and 100 percent satirical. Some of his comedy sketches are a little awkward yet, but only when he's really grinding an axe, and you can hear the steam tooting out of his ears; we've all been there before, and I'd be surprised if he didn't iron it out. Far better to come out of the gate too pissed off than not pissed off enough. I had trouble stomaching BIG LOVIN', his first novella-length work of satire, but I'm perhaps neurotically averse to diarrhea stories. Jesus H. Christ! If you, like some, think my writing goes too far in the visceral vomit direction, BIG LOVIN' would not be where I would advise you to start.

But I would advise you to start, if you a. like your insight porn delivered with a nice dash of the rictus grin, and b. have $4.15. (Come on, you cheap bastards. Yeah, I know, supply and demand, and now every pair of opposable thumbs that thinks it can spell has a blog and an ebook, but the going price of content has bottomed out so absurdly that I seriously wonder why any of us bother. See: BITTERNESS.)

And finally, though TROLLING is light on book talk, the nimbly analytical lit-crit essays Forney has been posting on these days are far, far more concise and polished than this train wreck right here has turned out to be.*****

So much for not bloviating. And I did keep saying he's going to improve. Ah well. Sonny, would you fetch me my Schlitz?

* Though of course, for all I know, before he writes much fiction maybe he'll wise up and go  run a go-kart track instead.

** And just because someone beat you at chess when you were drunk isn't a good reason to give them a black eye either. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

*** Best-case scenario, it turns out you're actually a giant robot death hamster.

**** I'd say "prematurely curmudgeonly," but the embarrassing column I wrote for my high school newspaper was titled "something something curmudgeon," so who am I to throw stones?

***** From a recent review of THE GRINGO TRAIL, by Mark Mann:

This book is trash....

This is why I despite British leftists, more so than leftists from anywhere else. Robert Fisk, George Galloway, Christopher Hitchens, Joe Strummer: all of them morally bankrupt, craven, disgusting hypocrites. These hatchet men love to wax pious about the sins of America, Germany, Russia or whoever, but they never apply that same standard on their own country. Limeys in general have a collective amnesia about the horrors they’ve inflicted on the world, but the Tories at least have an excuse.


  1. What a smart, deeply considered review-essay. I can't believe no one has commented.

    While it is silly to posit an evo-psych explanation of shit-testing as such, it's less silly, I think, to speculate on how the shit test might constitute one dot in the broader constellation of behavioral and temperamental traits that fall under the banner of sexual selection (which remains somewhat controversial). I suspect that Forney is aware of the deeper question, in any case, and is justifiably poking at the reductive, science-faking tendencies of so many web-bred dilettantes.

  2. Chip: You know my invisibility cloak is impenetrable. I really should have gone into drug running when I was young enough to handle the adrenaline.

    In any case it's devilishly easy to slip into seeing evolution as something organisms do on purpose. Giraffes didn't grow long necks because they wanted to be leaf eaters. Your eyebrows aren't "there for" anything. They just showed up and happened to help, or they don't harm too much. But try telling that to the part of your brain that wants to anthropomorphize everything. Including humans.

  3. Good review, Ann. Although I'm a 43 year old man, I have to admit that I'd never heard of the "manosphere" until I read this. At any rate, it was enough to get my curiosity up, so I spent several days looking at the various "GAME" websites and whatnot. And I have to say, the whole thing is rather bleak and depressing! Is this really all that's left in the 21st century? Just mindless manipulation and posturing, in the hopes of getting something (i.e., empty sex) that probably isn't worth the trouble to begin with?

    I think the major flaw with the manospheric universe is that it doesn't seem to recognize any value beyond sexual conquest. Sex is amusing, certainly. But when you're not thirsty, a glass of water doesn't seem like anything to get in a tizzy over. On the other hand, if you tell a man who's dying of thirst that a glass of water isn't anything to get in a tizzy over, and that there are other pleasures in life besides Gatorade, he will simply call you an ass. But it seems to me like the Manospherians are in large measure saying just that: that one should devote one's entire life to getting really really thirsty, and then spending the rest of one's time and energy seeking out ice water. Because, you know, it just feels SO good going down! After all, what are Poetry, Art, Literature, Philosophy, friendship, etc., compared to THAT?!

    Also, while I don't respect weak men, I think these people have a very crass notion of what constitutes "strength." By their standards, Donald Trump and Simon Cowell are the strong alpha winners in Gameland, because they are rich, aggressive, arrogant and obnoxious--and get the girls. While Hermann Hesse, Kafka, Einstein, Poe, Tesla, Lovecraft, Proust, etc., would necessarily count as the "beta" losers, because they were poor, unassuming, and didn't get much action. (Well, maybe Poe and Einstein got some!) But really, is it even worth not taking cyanide when you live in a world where 98% of the population sees things this way? The "gamersguides", and the "How to manipulate a Mindless Twentysomething Bimbo Into Bed" are likely right, in that most women probably would fall for such tactics. Nevertheless, I'd rather be Lovecraft living in obscurity with his mother, or Proust hiding from the world in his cork-lined apartment--than standing at a bar like a big phony, trying to seduce a vacant-eyed female with some spiel that I leaned from a book! Because, contrary to what these people maintain, there really are some of us who just don't give a damn.

    Anyhow, you're a first-rate writer, Ann. Just wanted to stop in and say how much I enjoy your work. (No response necessary to my above thoughts. Spend your free time working on that next novel!)

    1. There are a lot of strange ways that people judge others' strength... don't get me started.

  4. Bitter writing is fine as long as it's entertaining. Didn't Oscar Wilde show us that?

    Like you, I have an aversion to evopsychobabble. I think that the whole nymphomanic trainwreck that is young womanhood can be explained better by women herd dynamics combined with feminist/libertine pied pipers.

    1. To gently parody The The, if the real Oscar Wilde were to show up today, he'd be shut out cold by the MFAs.

      And I realize this makes me sound like a crusty luddite (again), but if you want to make a herd worse, just give it a Twitter account. The Internet may be good for fringe information-sharing, but it only coddles and intensifies the worst instincts of the vast masses of yes-tards.


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