In 1931, the "Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith recorded I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl, a playful song about desire.
The sugar in the bowl, the "little hot-dog" on the "roll," like salty dogs, jelly rolls or big biscuits, are well-established blues tropes.
This same sugar is now the name of new anthology edited by Erica Jong (who used the same Smith quotation in her filthy novel (or para-memoir), Any Woman's Blues.)
The book, Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex, appears on Oprah's website as one of 16 to watch for this month, and is swiftly summarized as a collection of stories about sex by female writers, curated by the woman who "nearly invented the topic."
The stories themselves are unremarkable in the extreme, unless one is surprised that seniors have sex lives; that women are lustful, and/or occasionally unfaithful.
No, the selling point is Jong, Empress of the Screws, who promoted the anthology in a New York Times piece this July by asking, "Is Sex Passé?" and wondering if sex, so "eternal," so filled with the "fog of longing" and "obsession," is becoming extinct.
"I think the younger generation wants to give it up," she frets. Sex has "lost its frisson of freedom," she alliterates anxiously.
In the introduction to Sugar, Jong expands on her thesis, by way of a wild, blind ride through social history.
Ovid, Shakespeare, Nabokov and Henry Miller are briefly goosed as Jong creates her thesis: that pornography "dumbed-down" sexy literature: "It didn't take long," Jong observes, "for Debbie Does Dallas to drown out Ulysses."
Let us ignore temporarily that women (barring herself and her role models, Sappho and Colette) appear so rarely in Jong's literary surveys, and also ignore the vast divide (in time and logic) between 1970s pornography and James Joyce's 1922 novel. And let's simply ask, will the 69-year-old Jong, best-summarized (well, he was speaking about her fictional alter ego, Isadora Wing) by Paul Theroux as "a mammoth pudenda," ever stop hectoring us about sex?
She is not merely complaining that some vague "younger generation" doesn't want to engage with the "beat of blood" in the erotic heart. She is still enraged that her 1973 novel (and arguably, one-hit-wonder maker) Fear of Flying forever characterized her as a dirty writer, not to be taken seriously.
Many of the contributors to Sugar, Jong informs us, also worried about degrading themselves as artists by writing about sex! What decade is this, anyway?
What decade indeed.
In 1994, I put together a book of sex writing and art for Coach House Press, called The Girl Wants To. I asked Jong to contribute, and received a long, loopy letter back, which bragged that "I have been writing juicily – from a female point of view – for at least 25 years." Xaviera Hollander ( The Happy Hooker) said the same thing.
Sex books were to become ubiquitous: It was the third wave of feminism, and it was a heady, no-holds-barred time for the art of raunch.
Why is Jong's strange little book, filled with mild-mannered fictions and cautious remembrances, appearing now?
It is nice to think that a new wave of feminism has appeared; but if it has, or when it does, it will not be predicated on sex.
Identifying ourselves as speaking, sexual subjects, as authoritative, autonomous and poly-desirous, was a critical stage in our collective development, our education and safety.
The young women I teach do not refer to themselves as feminists. The word makes them visibly uncomfortable and not because they are ignorant.
They will let us know what dangers they are facing, when they are ready. There is a world of women after all, which feminism's Western bias excluded. Perhaps their very real issues – rape, murder, torture, starvation – will become more prominent than our idle questions about our sex lives.
Jong, a lifestyle feminist and fervent confessional artist, is part of a dying breed.
And she needs to understand, most critically, that writing a work of art – like Ulysses – is not the same as writing an autobiographical story about sex.
Innumerable women write about sex and always have. They are artists, such as Mary Gaitskill, Gertrude Stein, Barbara Gowdy or Jessie Redmon Fauset. Or they are, on occasion, brilliant memoir writers like Violette Leduc or Pamela Des Barres.
The common denominator is not, nor should it be, the extremes of one's candour, but the depth of one's talent.
Jong is a wonderful trashy novelist with an acute highbrow sensibility, whose career has been derailed for a very long time – as long as she has lived in the shadow of the outrageous bestseller that made her millions.
Should she ever consider a new model of writing, devoid of her tawdry life experience, she may surprise everyone with all the vinegar she surely keeps in her bowl.