What Do Women Want?: Essays by Erica Jong

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What do women want? is a book of inspiration, humor, and provocation--an intimate conversation between the reader and Erica Jong. In these personal statements Jong addresses many of the questions that concern women and men today: Are women better off today than they were twenty-five years ago? What was Princess Diana's importance to women? Has Hillary Clinton prepared us for a woman president? Why do powerful women evoke ambivalence? Why do mothers continue to be blamed for working outside the home? How does the ...
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What do women want? is a book of inspiration, humor, and provocation--an intimate conversation between the reader and Erica Jong. In these personal statements Jong addresses many of the questions that concern women and men today: Are women better off today than they were twenty-five years ago? What was Princess Diana's importance to women? Has Hillary Clinton prepared us for a woman president? Why do powerful women evoke ambivalence? Why do mothers continue to be blamed for working outside the home? How does the mother-daughter dialectic influence cycles of feminism and backlash? What is the relationship of pornography to the creative spirit? Who is the perfect man? What constitutes sex appeal?

With her characteristic wit and her refreshing refusal to bow down before political correctness, Erica Jong tackles these and other issues. She also celebrates Nabokov's Lolita and relates it to the history of censorship; analyzes Anaïs Nin's importance to contemporary writers; captures the seductive charm of Italy, her second home; and honors the necessity for poetry in our lives. What Do Women Want? is at once an informal memoir and a book of inspiration for all women and the men in their lives.

What Do Women Want? is both funny and serious, full of Jong's delight in language and her passion for ideas. It grapples with the writers she loves and the hypocrisy she hates, and reveals her own original, quirky take on the world we live in.

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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal
The eclecticism of the collection is its real pleasure...nutty nuggets of politics, soft-centered personal reflections, melting confections of fantasy...meditations on literary themes and tributes to favorite authors.
Edwina Currie
Unfortunately, when [Jong] is being academic she is worthy but dull, and when the writing screams out as polemic — much more fun — she is frequently silly....I can put up with any sort of tosh if it is well written. So much of this book, however, falls in the you've-got-to-be-kidding category. -- Literary Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Jong is sometimes a lot of fun to read. The "sometimes" is the problem with this random collection of essays, some of which bounce off the news headlines and some of which sound like presentations to eager undergraduates. Jong is snippy and funny on the subject of the impotence drug Viagra--would we have expected less from the author of the famously raunchy Fear of Flying? But she can't resist pointing out that she was ahead of her time in 1973 when her heroine Isadora Wing opined on the subject of male limpness. Jong is interesting and trenchant on why we have such mixed feelings toward Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is academic on the subject of Charlotte Bronte and less than discreet about Henry Miller and his seemingly unalloyed admiration of her. She likes Virginia Woolf and Vladimir Nabokov, but it is hard not to balk a little when she describes herself as a "celebrated writer" in such company. Judging by her frequent references to her own notorious frankness, the celebration may be more sexual than literary. Complain, complain as ruffled critics have done since Isadora made her noisy debut 25 years ago, but at the end of it all Erica Jong is an original. One may flinch at a writer who can't leave the subject of sex for more than a paragraph or two but at the same time be seduced by one who believes in the power of poetry and introduces her miscellany with the words "Poetry has saved my life. I think it can save yours." (Sept.)
Library Journal
Jong (Inventing Memory, LJ 6/1/97) should stick to fiction writing. Her latest effort, essays on women, contemporary culture, and travel, is embarrassingly unsophisticated, full of the kind of gossip found in People magazine. To be fair, the travel essays are enjoyable, especially Jong's list of places to visit in Italy. But her focus is erratic, almost stream-of-consciousness--in writing about a sepulchre in Lucca and discussing the wife of a "15th-century boss," Jong writes, "I forgot how she died. I'm sure I deliberately blank out her story because I loathe stories about young women who die at tender ages." Jong continues to use the short choppy line, a style choice that can be hard to take. Though readers may devour Jong's personal stories about Hillary Clinton and the convicted nanny Louise Woodward, many will see them as yet another sensationalist attempt to sell books. Worst of all, Jong includes herself with many fine writers in the chapter "Writing for Love." If she is writing for love, one can only hope that she will do so privately. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, 5/15/98.]--Barbara O'Hara, Free Lib. of Philadelphia
Library Journal
And Jong should know: new or completely revised essays.
Kirkus Reviews
A mixed bag of essays, some new, some warmed over, that doesn't answer the question, but offers some occasionally amusing, even provocative food for thought. Jong (Inventing Memory, 1997, etc.), unfortunately, has not lost her taste for four-letter words or her conviction that readers want to hear one more time about her four marriages, her brief (nonsexual) relationship with Henry Miller, and her romance with Italy. All of these are included in this medley, subdivided into sections on, yes, power, sex, and bread and roses. The segment on power includes a chapter on Hillary Clinton, described as a "cut-and-paste" personality, on Princess Diana ("the heroine of a public soap opera"), reflections on the daisy-chain relationships of mothers and daughters, and a contemplation of her facelift. The sex section offers a worshipful view of Ana‹s Nin and a substantive look at Nabokov's Lolita; written in 1988, the latter piece is updated here with a report on the controversial new film version of the novel. There's an intriguing chapter on "Creativity versus Maternity," attacking the idea that gestating a baby is anything but a passive act (however rewarding it may be). And side by side with these at least somewhat challenging views is a chapter on "The President's Penis" that concludes, "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." That banal thought is relieved by a funny piece on Viagra ("sounds a lot to me like a plant food"). The last group of chapters has to do with work (bread) and home (roses). One commentary tells us tritely that writing is hard work and a "sacred calling," but another evocatively equates poetry with lust. Discussing houses, she calls on Edith Wharton, VirginiaWoolf, and Vladimir Nabokov to support her view of house as womb. Well read, an excellent stylist, and a sometimes original thinker, Jong, in this book as in others, frequently can't seem to get out of her own way to get to the heart of the matter.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781615595129
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 5/10/2007
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Erica Jong

Erica Jong is the author of nineteen books of poetry, fiction, and memoir, including Fear of Flying, which has more than 18 million copies in print worldwide. Her most recent essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, and she is a frequent guest on television talk shows. Currently working on a novel featuring Isadora Wing—the heroine of Fear of Flying—as a woman of a certain age, Erica and her lawyer husband live in New York City and Connecticut. Her daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, is also an author.

Erica Jong left a Ph.D. program at Columbia to write her ground-breaking novel Fear of Flying, published in 1973. Jong is the author of numerous award-winning books of poetry and novels including Fanny, How to Save Your Own Life, Parachutes and Kisses, Any Woman’s Blues, and the forthcoming Sappho’s Leap. She is also the author of the memoir Fear of Fifty. She lives in New York City and Connecticut.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

My Mother, My Daughter, and Me
Writing an autobiography and making a spiritual will are almost the same.
-- Sholem Aleichem

All we know of love comes from our mothers. Yet we have buried that love so deep that we may not even know where it comes from. If we have been wounded and have grown scar tissue over our hearts, we confuse the scar tissue with the heart itself, forgetting the wound that caused it.
My first memories of my mother come from the year my younger sister was born. I do not remember ever being the center of the universe, because when I came into the family, my older sister--four and a half to my zero--was already there.
I am four and a half when my younger sister is born, and my mother lies in bed like a queen receiving guests, children, parents, friends. She is beautiful and brown-eyed, with reddish-brown hair, and she wears a padded silk bed jacket over a silk nightgown. The women in my family wear bed jackets only in times of great ceremony--childbirth, illness, death--and we rarely spend daylight hours in bed. We are all so energetic that we clean up after our housekeepers, type for our secretaries, and instruct caterers in how to cook--though cooking is not exactly a family talent. So if my mother is in bed wearing a bed jacket, it must be important. And it is: Daughter number three has just been born.
The baby has a cold caught in the hospital, and four-and-a-half-year-old Erica has ringworm caught from her best friend's cat. She is forbidden to touch the baby--who is guarded by a dragonlike baby nurse. Erica feels contagious to the point of leprosy, so superfluous she thinks no one willeven care if she runs away. At four and a half, she can only conceive of running away to her best friend's house, on the floor below--but that is where she caught the ringworm in the first place. (In later days she might have run around the corner to the candy store--though every time she did that she ended up using one of her sweaty nickels to call home from the musty, cigarette-smelling phone booth. Invariably the adults wheedled her into saying where she was. She wanted to be found so badly she always told. She let them convince her to come home, though it meant crossing the street like a big girl.)
So she stays in the apartment, a rambling dilapidated West Side palace whose double-height front windows give north light--many of the people in the family are painters.
Erica's mother will not remain in bed wearing that quilted bed jacket for long. Pretty soon she will be up and running around, doing a "quick sketch" of the infant in her crib, telling the nurse how to care for the baby, stuffing the chicken to be roasted, and cutting together the butter and flour for the crust to enclose the apple pie she has told the housekeeper to make. Then she will dash to ballet school or the park or the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center with her two "big girls."
But the time--a day? two days? a week?--her mother stays in bed seems endless to four-and-a-half-year-old Erica. Especially after the dragon screams at her: "Don't you dare touch the baby with that hand!!!"
Baby Erica has never forgiven her mother for this abandonment. Pointless to explain that the obliviousness of the baby nurse to the teachings of Freud was hardly her mother's fault. Useless to say that the baby nurse was probably a poor soul who earned her meager living going from household to household, from baby to baby, without hope of a household or a baby of her own. It was an abandonment, and abandonments are, by definition, always your mother's fault. In my grown-up mind, I am strong and successful. In my baby mind, I am an abandoned child.
These are merely some of my memories of my younger sister's entrance into the world. Surely my mother's are entirely different. My older sister's are surely different, too. And as for the baby, what does she remember of those days except what we tell her? But somewhere in the most primitive part of my brain lies the fierce sense of betrayal my baby sister's birth must have provoked. I have never quite forgiven my mother for it. Even after years of lying-down analysis and sitting-up therapy, I still, at times, feel like that abandoned four-and-a-half-year-old with ringworm all over her arms and torso.
My mother and I have long since reached a truce. She turned eighty-six this year, and I have endured and surpassed my fear of fifty, so we are very tender with each other, like glass unicorns who might break each other's horns by kissing too passionately.
Now that I have a nineteen-year-old daughter myself, I understand all my mother's difficulties raising us. I have even been moved to fall to my knees before my mother and say: "You are my heroine simply for surviving three daughters!"
My daughter now rails at me as I once railed at my mother. When Molly monologues, sparing no one with her barbed wit, my mother and I look at each other and smile.
"Tell her you're sorry you were such a dreadful mother," my mother says, her voice dripping with irony. "And apologize." I even listen to my mother now.
"Molly," I say, "I only did the best I could. I'm sure I made plenty of mistakes. I apologize."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," says Molly, impatient. She looks at me with the sheer contempt that is grounded in excessive love. To myself I may sometimes be a four-and-a-half-year-old with ringworm, but to her I am Kali with a necklace of skulls, or the giant statue of Athena that once stood in the Parthenon, or snake-headed Medusa guarding the Golden Fleece. Just wait till you have a daughter, I think. But I am too wise to say it. And my mother and I grin at each other like co-conspirators. Raising a daughter requires superhuman patience. Raising a daughter is definitely tougher than writing.
I recently published a novel about mothers and daughters. In Inventing Memory, I traced the mother-daughter daisy chain through four generations, showing how we are shaped by both our mothers' yearnings and our own desperate need to break free of them. The dynamic between these two powerful forces is largely what molds our lives as women. Yes, our fathers and grandfathers matter, but what we learn from our mothers and grandmothers stays in the bone marrow. It surfaces as soon as you become a mother yourself. And what you sow as a daughter, you will inevitably reap as a mother.
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Table of Contents

Preface: What Do Women Want?
Pt. 1 Power
Ch. 1 My Mother, My Daughter, and Me 3
Ch. 2 Crust Lady: The Vicissitudes of Being Hillary Rodham Clinton 11
Ch. 3 Monster Mommies 29
Ch. 4 Why I Want to Be a Witch 33
Ch. 5 Blood and Guts: A Woman Writer in the Late Twentieth Century 41
Ch. 6 Jane Eyre's Unbroken Will 49
Ch. 7 Princess as Icon 55
Ch. 8 Face-off at the Millennium 61
Pt. 2 Sex
Ch. 9 Lolita Turns Thirty 67
Ch. 10 Deliberate Lewdness and the Creative Imagination: Should We Censor Pornography? 85
Ch. 11 Incest and Anais Nin 101
Ch. 12 Good-bye to Henry-San 115
Ch. 13 Creativity Versus Maternity 121
Ch. 14 The Perfect Man 129
Ch. 15 Quest for Stiffness 139
Ch. 16 What Is Sex Appeal? 145
Ch. 17 The President's Penis 149
Pt. 3 Bread & Roses
Ch. 18 My Italy 158
Ch. 19 Venice, in Particular 165
Ch. 20 Writing for Love 177
Ch. 21 Gestations 183
Ch. 22 Yeats's Glade and Basho's Bee: The Impossibility of Doing Without Poetry 189
Ch. 23 Books and Houses 193
Ch. 24 Coming Home to Connecticut 199
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Interviews & Essays

On September 2, 1998, barnesandnoble.com on AOL, in collaboration with Electra@aol, welcomed Erica Jong to our Authors@aol series. Erica Jong is the author of FEAR OF FLYING, FEAR OF FIFTY, and INVENTING MEMORY, among numerous other works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Her latest book is a collection of personal essays, WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? BREAD. ROSES. SEX. POWER.

Dr. Shirley P. Glass is a licensed psychologist and a certified marriage and family therapist, and the relationship expert for Electra. She answers questions from members weekly on sexual and relationship problems and chats with AOL members on a bimonthly basis.

AOLiveMC7: Good evening, everyone! We welcome Dr. Shirley Glass from Electra Online, and author Erica Jong.

Shirley Glass: I know from your book, WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?, that you're opposed to censorship. On AOL we're not allowed to say the "zipless f---" word from your book, FEAR OF FLYING. Would you like to comment on that?

Erica Jong: Great question. I don't believe we should censor language or ideas or content. I think sooner or later the best will float to the top and the garbage will sink.

SG: What has remained the same and what has changed for women since you wrote FEAR OF FLYING? Are women better off today than 25 years ago?

Erica Jong: Women have more choices. Women are also more exhausted. Sometimes we have won the right to be eternally exhausted. In terms of being better off, we are, in terms of better opportunities. We have many more practical problems: day care, sharing equally the household chores, et cetera.

SG: You pointed to the nanny case as evidence of hostility to working mothers.

Erica Jong: I think it's true that mothers are always blamed. And I think it's not helpful to women to always blame them for everything that goes wrong with children and/or families. We have to create new paradigms where we support mothers instead of attacking them. I believe that mothering is the hardest job I've ever had in my life -- writing books included!

SG: What does Princess Diana symbolize for you and women all over the world? Is her Cinderella story retrograde?

Erica Jong: I think I was shocked when Diana first came on the scene to discover how many people were charmed by the idea of the prince on the white horse. I thought we had gotten over that. I thought we knew that marrying a prince was not the solution to women's problems. Obviously the dream of being rescued dies hard! And I think Diana fulfilled a fantasy for a lot of people. Then she showed us that the fantasy is, in a way, a delusion.

Question: Erica, I would also like to say that I've admired your courage and always remember the phrase from FEAR that it's "an acquired taste." Thanks for that!

Erica Jong: [laughs] I think probably the most valuable thing I can do for younger women is to inspire courage.

Erica Jong: Here is our next audience question.

Question: Censorship lives in American classrooms. How can we encourage people to read the controversial issues as well as the canon?

Erica Jong: I think we have to encourage teachers to be more courageous, and have to be aware that parents' groups very often threaten teachers with dismissal and closely monitor the books they assign. Sometimes it's not the fault of the teachers, who are under pressure from military parents who don't understand the censorship issues (militant parents, not military parents).

AOLiveMC7: Thanks for the clarification! Here is a question for both Dr. Shirley Glass and Erica Jong.

Question: What is the biggest obstacle in communication between men and women, and how, as women, can we overcome this to get what we want?

Erica Jong: First, to go back one question. You have said that TV and the Internet isn't as influential as parents fear -- that parents have the greatest influence. However, that's not really true. Research evidence indicates that peer groups and social context are significant. I think peer groups become significant to teenagers. But I think the values are formed when they're younger by their parents. When they're teenagers, the pressure is certainly there, but they're already formed as people. As for communication...

SG: To get back to the one on communication: The biggest obstacle is that men and women use language differently. Women talk to establish rapport and men talk to "report" new information. Women request changes to enhance the relationship, and men feel put down, so they withdraw instead of being influenced.

Erica Jong: Women communicate in terms of feeling. Men communicate in terms of fact. The most important thing a woman can do is help the man she's involved with to unburden his feelings. Once that's possible, there's nothing you can't achieve.

SG: When women are emotional, men get confused, because their right and left hemispheres aren't as connected as women's, so they get pulled out of their logical area when they get emotional.

SG: I agree that helping him to express feelings is essential. The less emotional we are, however, the freer he will be to be emotional. That makes him feel safer, so he can be more expressive.

Erica Jong: Men are afraid of women's emotionality; it makes them feel out of control.

SG: Erica, you've been married four times. Do you believe in sequential monogamy?

Erica Jong: Yes! [laughs] To add to that: Open marriage is a great idea, but it never works! People are jealous. Trust is so necessary in a marriage.

SG: If you had met your current husband 20 years ago, would you have been attracted to him?

Erica Jong: I would have been terrified of him had I met him 20 years ago. He's entirely too sweet and kind. At that point in my life, I liked the bad boys. I had to become mature enough to love a man who was good to me. [laughs]

Erica Jong: I have been thinking about it lately. And actually, my first unpublished novel was written from a man's point of view.

Question: Can infidelity ever be forgotten by the other partner? If so, what is a reasonable time frame for healing?

Erica Jong: I don't think there is one time frame for everybody. Forgiveness is really hard for people. But I do think it's possible. Dr. Glass, do you have a comment on that?

Erica Jong: A lot has to happen before healing. The story of the affair has to be told to reestablish openness. The vulnerabilities for infidelity have to be understood, and commitment has to be defined and agreed upon.

Erica Jong: That's so true, Dr. Glass!

SG: Even after healing occurs, there will still be flashbacks and reminders.

Erica Jong: I see Hillary as being the wife of the alcoholic, but married to a sexoholic. When the husband has a slip, the wife isn't surprised. She may wish it hadn't happened; but on some levels she knows her "customer" and knows what he's capable of. I don't think she's surprised by Monica Lewinsky. Each time this happens, she becomes more powerful in the marriage. I don't see her as a victim.

SG: Then why did you say that her power increased when she became Bill's indispensable character witness? Isn't this typical behavior of an enabling spouse?

Erica Jong: Yes, it is typical behavior, but I think she has made a bargain, and it has to do with pillow power. She recognized that a woman could not be a president of the U.S. in this time in history and is president by proxy. She has paid a very, very high price.

AOLiveMC7: Dr. Glass, do you have any research findings on "sexoholics"?

SG: Sexually addicted people are unable to control their impulses, feel terrible afterward, vow to never do it again, then repeat the behavior.

Erica Jong: I see that as being a perfect description of Bill Clinton, Dr. Glass. So true.

SG: I don't really know if he's addicted or just one of those men in power who think they're entitled. However, his behavior is so self-destructive that it certainly is consistent with symptoms of sexual addiction.

Erica Jong: I admire Hillary tremendously. I think she's really changed the face of U.S. politics. She's the first public woman who has not hidden her brain, has been outspoken about children's rights and health care. Dr. Glass, we agree on that. Clinton has spent his whole life preparing for the presidency. Amazing how at the height of his popularity he does something so self-destructive. It's the behavior of a guilt-ridden man. He is the adult child of an alcoholic, his mother was battered, and I think we're seeing this coming out. I wish he had apologized for his behavior back in January and not tried to cover it up.

SG: You said, Erica, that one of the difficulties of being a smart, driven woman like Hillary is finding men who are turned on by brains. Has that been true for you?

Erica Jong: Good question. Yes, it's true for most smart women. They can wind up with abusive men who are sexy but not there when the women need them. I've seen that pattern again and again. Maybe we're seeing that with the Clintons!

SG: People tend to look for missing parts of themselves in their partners. So the plain, brainy girl gets the sexy, people-person guy.

Erica Jong: Very true. That is exactly the way I see the Clinton marriage. Very astute comment.

SG: Erica, I especially loved your discussion of feminism. I hope the audience will read your book.

Erica Jong: Me, too! I am working on a project to compile a reading list of the 100 best women's novels in the English language published between 1900 and 2000. Please submit your favorite books so I don't miss it. My web site address is www.ericajong.com. Should be fun to put together! Thanks so much for having me, Dr. Glass. It's been great talking with you!

AOLiveMC7: I think that this is all the time we have for this evening's chat. Thank you, Erica Jong! And thank you, Dr. Shirley Glass from Electra Online. A fascinating discussion -- sorry to have it end. Goodnight, everyone!

Erica Jong: Thanks again. This has been great fun!

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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  • Posted April 24, 2010

    Jong strikes again :)

    As always, Jong writes with poignance, grace, humor, and truth. She examines womanhood in various essays in the context of a patriarchal world and offers a sharp focus on society's ego and the role of the woman. As one of the pioneers of modern, feminist writing, she explores the catch-22 of being a woman - and moreover, a woman writer - and of expressing female sexuality. Interesting, beautiful collection of essays!

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