They had begun talking about literature and ended up talking about men. That in itself wasn't unusual. The women often began talking about energy or artichokes or the Middle East and ended up talking about men. They were, after all, old friends.

This time they were discussing "The Women's Room." The novel by Marilyn French had appealed to them as a saga, a kind of "War and Peace" - without the peace - that ranged over the past 20 years of women's lives.

It followed one woman from postwar suburbia to Cambridge consciousness-raising to the sort of independence that felt like strength to Monday and loneliness on Tuesday.

They had all read it, flinching with recognition along the way, exhausted by the trip, the effort of turning all those pages of experience. They had overdosed on truths.

Though an imperfect book, "The Women's Room" had shown the emotional texture of women's lives to be indigestibly rich, French's women were like hollandaise sauce - lush, but always on the verge of curdling.

But the men in that "Room" had less flavor than Ry-Krisp. There was nothing much to them. They were flat and altogether unpalatable.

So, they ended up talking about men, because as one said, "Aren't there any men in books with redeeming social value?"

The others chuckled. They were all women who were married or otherwise involved and their men were not Ry-Krisp. One was moussaka, another was beef Wellington, the third was, they all agreed, bouillabaisse.

They were, in short, complicated and nourishing men. While they were more likely to share the ingredients of their emotional recipes with women than with each other, they were definitely not Ry-Krisp. They weren't even steak and potatoes.

So the women tried to think of some books for a parallel male reading list. A "Men's Room," perhaps. Where were the men, writing about their private lives, the interior landscape, the changes in their experiences over the past 10 or 20 years?

Joe Heller? The men in his book "Something Happened" had less "redeeming social value" than those in Marilyn French's. They were automatons in the science-fiction world of corporate life. Their batteries were charged by self-hate. They were nothing but dry martinis.

Norman Mailer's men once had at least the garlicky aroma of sexual rage. Now, as art imitated life, there was nothing left of them but the pathetic cocktail-party pugilism. A cosmic anger had turned comic.

The menu went on. Saul Bellow's men had been chopped in middle age into mince pies of anxiety. John Updike's confused commuters were barely holding themselves together. They were as solid as creme caramel.

These authors were not writing about men's experience today. Philip Roth, the man who could write brilliantly about being a boy in the '40s, had never come of this age. His "Professor of Desire" had received tenure without manhood. He was archaic, and even his lust was as dry as a soda biscuit.

While the libraries were filled with books about the changes in women's lives - enough for a room of their own - there was little being written for a men's room. Oh, there was a touch of guilt now and then, a mea culpa or two. There was Avery, Corman's new novel about men and children. But there wasn't an "Eric" Jong or a "Martin" French or a "Frank" du Plessix Gray.

One of the women said that it was part of The Expression Gap, something that would be closed only in time. Women's lives had produced an emotional life so rich they'd often choked on it and eagerly written about it. Men had just gotten a permission slip to that part of the deep interior of their lives.

The women thought about that. When they got together, they started out talking about the Middle East or energy or artichokes and ended up talking about their personal lives. When the men they knew got together - even those who were bouillabaise and moussaka and beef Wellington - they began talking about the Middle East, and ended talking about the Middle East. There was still that difference. You could read all about it.