On the Page: Daniel Bergner and Patrick White

WhatDoWomen hc cWhat Do Women Want?

Daniel Bergner

(Ecco, 224 pp., $25.99)

In his new book What Do Women Want? journalist Daniel Bergner sets out to debunk some of our most fiercely guarded “fairy tales” about female desire. Most flawed, he argues, is the generally accepted notion that while men are indiscriminant animals evolutionarily hardwired to sew their seed around town, women prefer emotional connections and enduring relationships. Drawing on interviews with women, therapists and sexologists, Mr. Bergner analyzes the importance of novelty to female arousal, among many other aspects of women’s sexuality.

Unfortunately, reading Mr. Bergner’s book feels a bit like speed dating. No sooner has the reader met one topic and learned a little about it is he on to the next. Several subjects Mr. Bergner tackles, including the pharmaceutical quest for a female Viagra, the role of “narcissism” in women’s libidos and changing historical attitudes toward female orgasms from the Biblical times to today, require more nuanced discussion than his modest page count permits.

While some portions feel rushed, others are gratuitous, like Mr. Bergner’s highly detailed descriptions of the porn used in one experiment gauging arousal. Similarly, one questions why, aside from titillation, six pages are devoted to women describing their sexual fantasies with no real analysis. It’s as though the content alone—rape, incest, trysts with bosses, etc.—is somehow illuminating. Forty years ago, Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden revealed the shocking truth that women not only fantasize, but do so about all sorts of things, from the tame to the taboo. More interpretation would allow Mr. Bergner to add something new to our understanding of female eros, rather than present old news as novel. —Zoë Lescaze

Hanging GardenThe Hanging Garden

Patrick White

(Picador, 240 pp., $15)

Virginia Woolf’s last and funniest novel, Between the Acts, was published shortly after the author’s death, though the manuscript, according to the assurance of Woolf’s husband Leonard, “had been completed, but had not been finally revised for the printer…She would not, I believe, have made any large or material alterations in it.” That’s a pretty loaded “I believe.”

More complicated is David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, a winding disjointed novel pieced together from about 250 pages neatly stacked on his desk at the time of his death as well as materials from “hard drives, file folders, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks, and floppy disks contain[ing] printed chapters, sheaves of handwritten pages, notes, and more,” according to Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch.  Publish or perish goes the old adage–so why not perish then publish?

Nobel laureate Patrick White now has his own highly suspect posthumous work of fiction, The Hanging Garden, which opens with this curious note: “The Hanging Garden has been transcribed from Patrick White’s handwritten manuscript and, in the absence of a living author to consult, not edited.” The manuscript was found “untouched” on his desk after his death in 1990, and comes to us now even though White wished all his “unpublished manuscripts be destroyed.”

Who cares, I guess, is the general reaction from the publishing industry to such requests and in some cases, thank God some literary executor had the cojones to defy a person’s last wish. (See: Kafka). The Hanging Garden, billed as a “fragment” of a much longer novel about two children in Australia displaced there by World War II, is invaluable for White’s avid readers–and a kind of perverse act of voyeurism for the rest of us–though I can’t help but feel it’s more interesting for its publication history than its writing.—Michael H. Miller