If you’re looking for a page-turner, a good rule of thumb is to steer clear of books based on doctoral dissertations. But if and when an academic work is published for a general audience, even if the prose isn’t compelling, the bare minimum we’d expect is for the writer to get the facts right. Unfortunately for polemicist and bestselling feminist author Naomi Wolf, her latest book Outrages—which grew out of the Ph.D. she completed at Oxford in 2015—failed either to entertain or to be accurate. Yesterday, after several weeks of controversy, her publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that the book would no longer appear in the United States on June 18, its planned publication date, and is according to the New York Times, “taking the costly step of recalling finished copies.”
Yet I don’t find it straightforward to dismiss Wolf as a writer and thinker, as some critics have. For many women of a certain generation—including but not limited to those who came of age around the turn of the millennium perhaps—discovering Wolf’s earlier books was part of a hodgepodge, self-assembled feminist education. That was certainly true for me, in college in the nineties. I had never taken a women’s studies class; I tended to get most of my information from women’s magazines, from broadcast TV, from the canon of literature we read in my English classes, from late-night drunken conversations. Which is why my world burst open when my roommate handed me a copy of Naomi Wolf’s debut. The Beauty Myth remains one of the most formative books in my life, and I’m grateful to have read it when I did.
“One of several current books that are staking out the next wave of feminist thought,” writes Caryn James in a 1991 roundup in the New York Times, “this sloppily researched polemic against the tyranny of beauty may seem as dismissible as a hackneyed adventure film.” Still, says James, The Beauty Myth is valuable because it identifies a problem: Impossible standards of beauty undermine the progress of second-wave feminism by dictating that women must spend time and money to look thin and pretty and young. Men were getting ahead while we were busy watching our waist lines.
If Wolf’s debut felt trite and inadequately argued to anyone paying attention, then I decidedly hadn’t been. The Beauty Myth made me question my surroundings in a way that no other book had at the time. It felt revolutionary for me to consider that my disordered eating and my constant feelings of inadequacy about my physical appearance were oppressing me in ways I hadn’t even considered. My good grades and my ambitions did nothing to shield me from the angst I felt when I looked in the mirror. I was basic. I was exhausted. I was angry. Wolf articulated the feeling that roiled in my belly alongside an unfulfilling banquet of fat-free foods: “Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one,” she wrote.
My roommate then let me borrow a copy of Wolf’s 1997 book, Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle For Womanhood, and I read it with equal reverence. Here, finally, was a book that reassured me that it was not bad or harmful for young women to like sex, to desire sex. It was the turn of the twenty-first century, and yet the concept of horniness sans shame was still new to me. “There are some interesting topics in this book (concerning the emotional fallout of the sexual revolution, and other cultures’ perceptions of female carnality),” writes Michiko Kakutani in her 1997 review of Promiscuities in the New York Times, “but they are buried beneath reams and reams of bad writing, narcissistic babbling and plain silliness.” Very little of Promiscuities felt silly to me at the time I read it.
From there, Naomi Wolf continued to make a name for herself as the kind of writer who could change the way you view the world, cranking out books that promised to empower and nourish. And I, who once venerated her, grew skeptical. Some might say I became more politically aware or more sophisticated in my taste, but I think I simply grew up. It’s only upon revisiting her seminal works that I realize how easily impressed I was in my girlhood, charmed by inelegant, poorly argued tracts as much as I was charmed by David, the moody, floppy-haired boy who lived down the hall from me. David was excellent in concept, but utterly boring to talk to, just as Wolf was adept at creating a tantalizing package but one that contained very little depth to hold my interest.
“Citing history, science, Tantra, and her own online questionnaires,” states a particularly scathing review of Wolf’s 2012 book, Vagina, in Publishers Weekly, “Wolf concludes that the vagina is ‘the delivery system for the states of mind that we call confidence, liberation, self-realization, and even mysticism in women.’ Neither scientist, sociologist, sex-educator, physiologist, nor psychologist herself, reporter Wolf draws liberally and uncritically from work in those fields.” I didn’t read Vagina. By the time it was published, I was a grown woman, single and savvy for long enough to know that the orgasm was not the be-all end-all that Wolf claimed it was. Online I had read the works of Roxane Gay and Rebecca Solnit, Anna Holmes and Jessica Valenti, all of whom inspire me to this day. I had also worked in book publishing for more than a decade, and I’d learned how the industry favors the charismatic authors with the shiny packages, how big ideas were often more important than follow through, how fact-checking was an afterthought, if bothered with at all.
Meanwhile, Wolf was making wilder and wilder assertions outside of the book world. She belittled the women that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was accused of raping, demanding that the victims come forward and give their names if they wanted to be taken seriously. In 2014 she spread conspiracy theories including the belief that the beheading of two American journalists by ISIS was faked and staged. I began to write off as a fringe character the woman who’d once informed my own feminism so deeply.
The topic of Wolf’s latest book then, seemed unassuming in a way her previous screeds had not, with the shiny aura of scholarship surrounding it. In Outrages Wolf uses years of doctoral research in order to trace the rise of the criminalization of homosexuality in Britain. No matter that Wolf’s misunderstanding of a legal phrase nullified her claim that the British government executed men for sodomy in the 1850s, and the premise of her book fell apart from there. The Outrages she studied turned out not to have been so outrageously overlooked after all—plenty of other scholars have produced detailed and sensitive work on sexuality in the nineteenth-century. No wonder the book’s publication is now being postponed.
It would be a shame, however, to brush past the subject of Outrages: the 19th century British writer John Addington Symonds, who, Wolf claims, is the writer who most shaped the modern discourse about homosexuality. Through his writing Symonds invented the language we use to talk about being queer today. For better or for worse, Naomi Wolf invented so much of the language around my own first encounters with modern day feminism. I’ve become a better thinker since I first encountered The Beauty Myth, and I wish Wolf had too.