The news that Maeve Binchy, Britain's most popular female novelist, is to hang up her pen, has plunged me into despair. Binchy was no Tolstoy, but she served a key social role. She fought the conspiracy to make us, the female readers, feel hopelessly inadequate.
Read trendy young scribblers such as Elizabeth Wurtzel, who has just published a guide to contemporary sexual mores called The Bitch Rules, and you'll see that they trade on making women feel dated. Their premise is that, if we want to get on in the new society, we must take up new attitudes towards sex. Forget the old feminist stuff about sex being a plot perpetrated on unsuspecting women by the oppressive patriarchy. No, for the Wurtzels of this world, sex is something that women should engage in - and yes, even enjoy - but only so long as they meet certain standards. And the standards are impossibly high.
Elizabeth and Co look down their noses at us if we don't engage in Kama Sutra contortions on the first date, or if we allow one ounce of emotion to colour our physical performance. These new self-appointed lifestyle gurus have very specific notions of what sex entails. It's sweaty, grunting, athletic stuff that must hit the pleasure spots without dragging in moods, feelings or even a thought about tomorrow. Erotic ecstasy is expected; emotions are kept at bay. What you see is what you get - and all you're allowed to want. It's mattress materialism. And coital consumerism: for these women writers approach sexuality like a shopper with a checklist: size, timing, foreplay, positions - and oh, how many times did you come? Everything has to be just so, for the consumer's instant gratification.
If this sounds familiar, it is: the Wurtzel view is the caricature of a man's attitude to sex. How ironic. It's taken all these years for trendy young women writers to push the same high libido, no-real-affection scenario that has been a male fantasy since our days in the caves. We didn't buy it when men were pushing it on us; why should we want it now from women?
The new young writers may lack a sense of sisterhood, but they do have self-confidence in spades. Armed with their strident attitude, they strut their stuff, convinced that they know what's best for us - even between the sheets. They sweep into town, ready to rate our performance and give us tips on how to improve it. And while they attack our code of sexual conduct from newspaper pages and on TV chat shows, they leave the rest of us ordinary women cowering in their shadows, feeling like the undeserving poor in a society rich in sexual and emotional satisfaction. Works such as The Bitch Rules are calculated to make us feel like an emotionally wet underclass starved of fun, mediocrities who would be perfect candidates for the attentions of a Sexual Exclusion Unit.
Which is why we mourn Maeve Binchy. She never marginalises us. When a man and a woman engage in an erotic coupling in her novels, Binchy doesn't deliver a blow-by-blow account of orgasmic frenzy and sexual antics that would make 99 per cent of us feel wanting. She withdraws, and lets them get on with it. We do not have to measure up to impossible feats of acrobatics or aspire to unattainable levels of emotional toughness. We fill in the blanks till we have fulfilled our own fantasies.
Binchy's approach is not born out of bourgeois primness or Irish Catholic scruples; her tales do feature sex before marriage, adultery and promiscuity. But her writing aims to include us in her world, rather than tell us what to do from her superior perch. Close your eyes, she tells us, and you too can live out your wildest dreams.
This approach may be old-fashioned - it is based on suggestion, longing and anticipation - and it may not improve our sexual performance in any measurable way. But it does have the merit of treating women's sexuality as their own, rather than some caveman's fantasy.