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Erica Jong’s stunning self-absorption
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Who is this heartless woman? Could it really be the late twentieth century’s great defender of erotic love? The woman who claimed, in Fear of Fifty, that she still adored each one of her many ex-partners, that in fact “I even love them better than I did when we were together, because now I have more empathy”? Empathy? The only emotion visible in the hodgepodge of Jong’s latest “memoir” is narcissism. All her politics have dwindled to vanity—and a vague sense of aggrievement. Perhaps she feels the human race hasn’t accorded her the adulation she deserves, but where once she was the Feminist Who Loved Men she now comes off as the Slut Who Hates Them. Where once she made some display of solidarity with other women, it is now plain that she dislikes, disregards, and fears them.

Take her attack on female writers her age, or younger. They envy her “rich life,” she tells us glibly, the whole lot of them. She has to kick herself under the table to pay attention to them at dinner parties. That said, she has some advice for them: Be loyal to your sex! Don’t review another woman’s books badly—to do so is a sign of “self-hatred”! Putting aside the gross anti-intellectualism and horde mentality implicit in such a proposition, it is jarring for its hypocrisy. Stand by your sisters, says the career vamp of American letters? (Not content merely to detail, in Seducing the Demon, how she destroyed Martha Stewart’s marriage, Jong also assaults us with all the withering things Stewart’s husband allegedly said about Martha in flagrante delicto.) Don’t hurt other women, says the writer who vociferously spurns her mother, reviles her sisters, and lingers sadistically on how the “schoolteacher” wife of a “famous” Irish poet she “fuck[ed]” and discarded in a fancy London hotel sits home and “pays [his] bills"? This person draws the line at a bad book review?

Love (like all great undertakings) is a messy matter. It is not my contention that it can—or even should—be innocuous. When Jong was poised to be its feminist champion, in the 1970s, she brought to the discussion both stinging candor and fiery commitment. Today, her sole commitment is to her own fame. Her sole candor is strategic titillation. When she calculates that it will keep us turning the page, she offers sordid details from her (ever more distant) sexual past. In so doing she avoids the far more difficult, and potentially interesting, question of how she lives now. Jong has been married, at this point, for roughly fifteen years. She has always said that marriage and erotic intensity—even emotional intensity—are incompatible. Well, are they? She chokes off the question with a line or two about tantric sex. She prefers to elaborate on the blow job she gave her publisher in the early ’70s.

And even in an account of this ilk, her lies are legion. Incapable of self-criticism, Jong proves almost touchingly unfit to analyze her own motives. No matter what she does, she is always right and forever wronged. So even as she—an unpublished novelist at the time, demanding half a million dollars for a novel her elderly publisher knows nothing about—takes his “flabby prick” into her mouth, she is not, she emphatically tells us, a “gold-digger girl.” She is a … “social worker”! She simply “felt sorry for his age.” Her only regret? That the old moneybag did not give her a priceless first edition of poetry into the bargain; he gave her only a facsimile. “I didn't,” smarts Mother Teresa, “give him a facsimile blow job!”

Jong’s only real love is for the glory she imagines will greet her writing—writing that is notable, unfortunately, for its comic clumsiness: “I wish I could lower my standards,” she complains. “I could write faster, but the books would suck.” The books do suck. Each of them, these days, is about one thing: finishing it. “[G]o home and finish the book,” she has her mother say at the close of Fear of Fifty. “The story is not over yet,” she reminds us at the end of Seducing the Demon. Jong’s prose, increasingly, is about prose. Even her pornographic fantasies—about Bill Clinton, the poet Ted Hughes, and, indeed, William Shakespeare—pale next to her reveries about the literary laurels that await her. “I dream,” she tells us in Seducing the Demon, “that I have written an amazing book.”

Dream on, Erica. This book—like your last dozen—is amazing only for its mediocrity. It is amazing only for its meanspiritedness, its tedium, its awkward prose, and its stunning self-absorption. Literature can bear a great deal of self-absorption, but Jong may well have overshot the mark. Literary aspiration, at the end of the day, is a limited plot device. Especially in the absence of literary talent. Muses—like men—tend to eschew those who chase them exclusively; single-minded pursuit frightens as often as it flatters them.

The best way to write is to have something to say. For all her aggressive loquacity, Erica Jong has run out of topics. She has run out of interests. She has run out of empathy for other people. And yet the war in which she once fought—the war to reconcile passion with feminism—goes on. The ends are still just. And the stakes are as high as ever.

Photograph by Sophie Bassouls/Corbis Sygma

Cristina Nehring, a regular contributor to The Atlantic, is writing a book about women and love, for HarperCollins.
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