I am not a regular reader of the semi-paywalled New York Times, where I seem to have perpetually exhausted my ten “free” articles with blind links from Twitter that I never knew were going to land there; so it took a nudge from my friend Dr. Faustus to clue me in to the news (which no one else seems to have reported in any detail) that Nancy Friday passed away yesterday.

Nancy Friday, the author whose books about gender politics helped redefine American women’s sexuality and social identity in the late 20th century, died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 84.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, her friend Eric Krebs said.

In 1973, when the author Caroline Seebohm reviewed Ms. Friday’s first book, “My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies,” for The New York Times, she joked about just what kind of “dirty book” it was and playfully reassured readers that despite the author’s findings, “men are still indispensable.”

The book’s shocking premise was that women had erotic thoughts. Ms. Friday, however, who based the book on hundreds of interviews, said those thoughts were accompanied by considerable guilt and secrecy.

The book was an immediate best seller.

By the time I reached adolescence, Nancy Friday had published a whole string of pop-sexuality best-sellers to the same formula as My Secret Garden; they each consisted of some high-minded essaying, the premise of which would be supported in detail by a lengthy compendium of what purported to be sexual fantasies collected by interviews or letters. These readily could, and did, serve as masturbatory literature in much the same way as the Penthouse Forum and many similar “letters” magazines of the time, but were written or edited to a much higher standard and unique in their focus (except in one of Friday’s later books that shifted to men) on the fantasies of women. I wondered (then and now) about the extent to which the fantasies were “collected” as Friday claimed, given the clear analogies to the parallel and purely fictional porn genre that then existed. But whether she was committing acts of sociology or literature, they were revolutionary either way; there weren’t any other voices focusing so directly on the pleasure of women at that time. Not, at least, that you could find on the paperback book rack in front of the B. Dalton’s at any mall in America!

All this, of course, is but a narrow slice of an interesting literary life; the tiny piece that impinged on a callow young man (not her target audience!) in a small town a very long time ago. The New York Times obituary does a much better job of capturing the whole, or at least that polite snapshot that we accept (in lieu of impossibility) whenever a person dies and a good writer is asked to sum up a life in a few thousand words.

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