Penis envy

What do Women want?

Erica Jong <em>Bloomsbury, 256pp £16.99</em>

In Search of an Impotent Man

Here are two shocking books. Not because they are lewd and rude; indeed, a great many serious readers today enjoy a little touch of Chaucer or Rabelais in the night, and this reviewer is one of them. How dreary life would be without a little bawdy to season it. No, the shocking thing about these books is how conventional and outdated they are.

Ms Jong is a writer I have much admired in the past. Her Fear of Flying brought joy as well as giggles to women everywhere. I tried hard to admire her new offering, a collection of pieces originally written for magazines and newspapers with only a little added new material, but failed almost completely. I say almost, because at least she displays that excellent feminine virtue of thrift and make-do-and-mend. Recycling one's work gives a greater glow than taking the detritus of last night's party to the bottle bank.

But it can be damaging to one's reputation to do it and shocking to readers. One self-referential piece amid more considered writing can be refreshing; which is why the present craze for columnists is thriving. Columnists see the world entirely their own way, generalising from the particulars of their own experience. But what refreshes in small chunks overwhelms as a full meal. So this is a Marmite book: "Too Much Spoils the Flavour".

Take as an example of the tone of the book "The Perfect Man", an absurd subject for an essay, which Jong treats without any hint of irony. This is a considerable achievement, since what could be a funnier concept? But keep a straight face if you can as you sample this exercise in breathtaking solipsism: "I have been very much like many women of my time. In my twenties, unfledged in my career, I married a father figure; in my thirties, well established in my career, I felt ready to choose a man for his sense of joy. When that proved to have its own problems - I stayed single for eight years - when I remarried I was ready for a true partner . . . "

As my old grandma used to say, Jong doesn't know whether she's on this earth or Fuller's. If she had called her book "What amazingly successful, famous, iconic New York women writers want", it would have been more accurate. Dear, dear Erica, next time out, do please give us a new novel. It's harder work than writing short pieces and then packaging them in soft covers, but it will be a lot closer to what many ordinary, non-famous women want.

The second shocker deals with the dreadful problems of one Carmen Legg, a successful, affluent, BMW-driving, 35-year-old German businesswoman. She is, naturally, stunningly beautiful (red hair, glorious eyes, slender but thrillingly feminine shape, skin like peaches and cream), sexy, stared at by all the men she meets. But she is fed up with this, fed up with being continually propositioned, and fed up with her boyfriend who keeps wanting to have sex with her when all she wants is a cup of tea and to read the paper.

So how does Carmen confront these awful problems? Well, first she confides in her secretary, who is her dumpy antithesis and who Carmen feels so sorry for that she still relishes pointing out her friend's shortcomings. She also confides in her neighbour, a sparky older woman who has enjoyed an adventurous past, and eventually in her best friend. Then she places an ad in the local paper - "Wanted: clear-thinking male - must be intelligent and impotent" - and settles down to wait for her white knight in shining armour to come galloping by.

The response to her ad is, surprisingly, immediate and interesting; there is not a wimp or weirdo among the men who contact her. (Perhaps they do these things more efficiently in Germany.) In fact, there are so many replies that Carmen begins sharing men out among her friends. In time, Carmen falls in love, her friend Laura finds a nice undemanding father for the baby she is expecting from a previous failed relationship, the old lady gets a surrogate son and everyone lives happily ever after, especially Carmen, who discovers that the man she has fallen for isn't impotent after all and was only pretending to be so in order to get her to marry him. She is deeply relieved about this, because she won't be deprived of sex after all. How sweet.

In Search of an Impotent Man is tiresome nonsense, freighted with superfluous, dreary detail. But what is most shocking is that it has become an international best-seller. Ye gods, what dreadful world have we been brought to by the search for literacy for all?

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour