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What Do Women Want?: Essays by Erica Jong

What Do Women Want?: Essays by Erica Jong

by Erica Jong

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Erica Jong's two rules of writing are "never cut funny" and "keep the pages turning." And Jong delivers in these twenty-six essays, coupling frank and risqu? stories about her own life with provocative pieces on her passion for politics, literature, Italy, and-yes-sex. Originally published in 1998, this updated edition features four new essays. What Do Women Want?<


Erica Jong's two rules of writing are "never cut funny" and "keep the pages turning." And Jong delivers in these twenty-six essays, coupling frank and risqu? stories about her own life with provocative pieces on her passion for politics, literature, Italy, and-yes-sex. Originally published in 1998, this updated edition features four new essays. What Do Women Want? offers a startlingly original look at where women are-and where they need to be in the twenty-first century: Are women better off today than they were twenty-five years ago? Has burning pre-nup agreements become the new peak of romance? Why do our greatest women writers too often get dissed and overlooked? Why do powerful women scare men? And who is the perfect man? How does the mother-daughter relationship influence cycles of feminism and backlash? Will Hillary become president? What is sexy?

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
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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Penguin Publishing Group
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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.

What People are Saying About This

Naomi Wolf
Jong's work will last with some of the best and most original that this century has produced. She treats her work as a sacred calling...rather than a career move. For this reason she will continue to enrage her contemporaries and she is sure to outlast them.

Meet the Author

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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