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Book News

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Salon Magazine

No feminist manifesto here

'What do Women Want?'
By Erica Jong

Harper Collins

Review by Cathy Young

Web posted on: Tuesday, October 06, 1998 1:19:26 PM EDT

(SALON) -- Anyone who picks up Erica Jong's new book expecting a feminist manifesto or a treatise on the female condition will be disappointed. The latest from the author of "Fear of Flying" is a slim collection of essays on topics ranging from Viagra to Venice; often they're only tenuously related to women or feminism.

As it happens, Jong is often at her least interesting when she's wearing her feminist hat. The essay "Curst Lady: The Vicissitudes of Being Hillary Rodham Clinton" (that title is the most inventive thing about it) rehashes the cliché that any criticism of the first lady must be rooted in hatred of strong women. The other feminist critique of Hillary Clinton -- that she's a pseudo-independent woman who got her power the old-fashioned way, by marriage -- is ignored. Just as predictable are Jong's reflections on the much-exaggerated vilification of Dr. Deborah Eappen, the mother of the dead baby in the trial of British au pair Louise Woodward.

Jong deplores the "angry agitprop" of radical feminists, but she shares their hyperbolic rhetoric about "America's secret war on women." And she can often be as intolerant as any Andrea Dworkin acolyte: Women who won't genuflect before the self-revelatory writings of Anaïs Nin, for example, are dismissed as "afraid of freedom." "What Do Women Want?" has its own share of self-revelatory prose -- about Jong's relationship with her mother and her daughter, about getting a face lift and the accompanying guilt, about the search for "the perfect man" and, of course, about sex. Curiously, this sexual revolutionary ultimately comes across as something of a romantic, musing that sex needs "mystery" to be truly exciting; making it "too literal, too available," as sex videos do, snuffs out eros.

The most interesting pieces in this collection have to do with art and literature. Jong is refreshingly old-fashioned about the need for poetry and prose in our lives. "This passion to create defines our humanity," she writes. "Words are our antidote to mortality." She offers keen insights, too, on childbearing and artistic creativity, challenging the banal equation of the two ("Creativity demands conscious, active will; pregnancy demands only the absence of ill will") and the belief that women must choose one or the other. The essay on "Lolita" goes beyond the issues of art, sex and morality and explores the theme of the losing fight against time. My only quibble is with Jong's praise for Adrian Lyne's mediocre film.

A more serious problem is that, in her worthy zeal to defend the right of art to be bawdy, Jong gets carried away and suggests that it must be so. She opens her tribute to Henry Miller with the pronouncement, "All of us, if we are honest, know that art is a fart in the face of God." Where does that leave, say, Rafael or Keats? Jong is not a profound thinker; often, she is a muddled one. But even when you disagree with her, she's hard to dislike. One senses her genuine affection for culture, for language, for sex, for people. And sometimes, that's enough of a cause for gratitude.

Cathy Young is the author of the forthcoming book "Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality" (Free Press).

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