Betsy Prioleau is here to tell us, at interminable length, that everything we thought we knew about the erotic appeal of the great male lovers is wrong, wrong, wrong. The popular image of great lovers, from Casanova to Warren Beatty, is that they’re stud muffins pure and simple, but Prioleau is having none of that. What makes a man catnip to the ladies, she argues, is not his rippling muscles or his trophy case full of championship medals but his sensitivity, his vulnerability, his — well, if you want to put it that way — femininity.
This would seem to be the stuff of a few paragraphs in Cosmo or Elle, but Prioleau has managed to inflate it into a book of more than 300 pages, crammed with quotes from pop psychologists and footnotes bristling with faux scholarship. Not merely that, but her publisher, a good one that really ought to know better, characterizes “Swoon” on advance readers’ copies not as beauty parlor reading but as, no kidding, “Cultural Studies,” thus festooning it with a veneer of academic legitimacy that it plainly does not deserve.
(W.W. Norton) - ‘Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them’ by Betsy Prioleau
On the other hand, too much of what passes for scholarship in academia these days is little more than pandering to one special interest group or another, so perhaps a breezy, once-over-lightly book about sex written in gushy prose has as much claim to being called “Cultural Studies” as did, in years gone by, the unreadable oeuvres of Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis. In any case I fetched “Swoon” from a remarkably unappetizing stack of advance proofs of books to be published in February 2013 in the hope that it might prove both enlightening and amusing. Sad to say, it is neither.
Prioleau, according to her relentlessly self-promotional Web site (www.betsyprioleau.com), comes from “a southern belle culture,” as she is a native of Richmond, but that hasn’t stopped her from plunging into the steamy world of — after you cut away the quotes from pop psychologists and the footnotes — bodice-rippers. This is confirmed by the illustration on the dust jacket of “Swoon,” a syrupy painting that shows an elegant 18th-century swain offering a rose to his inamorata with his left hand while resting his right hand dangerously close to her ample bosom. This illustration is in keeping with that on the cover of her previous book, “Seductress,” which comes with a subtitle that positively reeks of the Harlequin books factory: “Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love.”
Like the manufacturers of Harlequin tales, Prioleau believes that the good old days really were better, at least when it comes to love and sex. Our modern world, as she sees it, is too distracted by technology, and too many women are absorbed by work and careerism, for matters of the boudoir to flourish as they did in the time of Casanova and Lord Byron. Indeed, right off the bat Prioleau leaves no doubt that Casanova is the true hero of her tale. He may have gone down in history as one of those despicable “heartless philanderers and cold-plotting rogues,” but: