BOOK REVIEW / Correspondence course

WHY DO WOMEN WRITE MORE LETTERS THAN THEY POST? by Darian Leader, Faber pounds 9.99
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WHO says they do? Is it a well-known, empirically-tested fact that women constantly write letters which remain half-finished or unsent? Are men, by contrast, purposeful correspondents who never commit themselves to paper without the certainty that their thoughts will be signed, sealed and delivered?

It's unusual for so many questions, some of them sceptical, to be prompted by the title of a book. What this reflects is Darian Leader's recognition that his subject - the differences between men and women and in particular male and female sexuality - is founded on uncertainty. Any question about why men do one thing and women another rests on an assumption which may be wrong, outdated or transparently disprovable.

Even so, as Leader argues in his introduction, "when [these ideas] are wrong, they can be replaced by other ideas and that way the ball keeps rolling". How you react to this proposition, and to his bold assertion that he has tried "to make a large number of mistakes" throughout the book, depends on your degree of attachment to the notion of textual authority - that it is an author's duty to reveal some sort of truth.

What you will not get from this book is solemn answers of the type favoured by agony aunts: women write letters they don't post because they are more verbal, more in touch with their emotions, yet afraid of exposing their feelings to the outside world. Instead Leader uses the question in the title as a powerful opening image to illustrate his theory of the "fundamental loneliness of each sex" and returns to it only in the final chapter, after he has explored dozens of other aspects of this essential separateness, not just of the sexes but of individuals from each other.

Leader, a psychoanalyst with academic jobs at Brunel and Leeds Metropolitan Universities, states his allegiance in this project to Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst whom he regards as "with no doubt the most important successor of Freud". This is not as daunting as it sounds, for Leader's prose has an elegance and wit, and a gift for one-liners, not usually associated with that austere (some would say obscure) system of thought. For example: "It is much more sensible for a man who wants a woman to like him more to be nice not to her mother but to cats." "Car thieves ... are Darwinian: they have adapted to the existence in their habitat of alarm systems." "Pubic hairs, like the planets, do not speak."

The last sentence comes from a discussion of male jealousy, beginning with a case history in which a man who suspects his wife of infidelity embarks on an obsessive examination of her underwear. Putting to one side the classical interpretation that jealousy involves an unconscious homosexual attraction to the male rival, Leader suggests instead that it reflects male frustration with the very nature of female sexuality - that it is an attempt to make it "say" something by reducing it to bodily deposits.

This comes perilously close to the old idea of woman-as-mystery, eternally defying men's attempts to decode her, but Leader uses the example as the springboard for a fascinating line of inquiry. A woman's sexuality, he suggests, "does not require a real man to articulate itself"; yet, if this is true, to whom is it really directed? And is it this capacity for sexual self-definition, this relation to something or someone beyond the flesh-and-blood lover, that men find so disturbing?

The example of the car alarm introduces a parallel series of questions about masculinity. Since car thieves have learned to circumvent security systems and steal cars quietly, car alarms have come to function not as protection but as a reminder of risk; in much the same way, Leader suggests, the exaggerated displays of masculinity which dominate our culture (rap songs, for instance) reflect not confidence but insecurity. For many of these men, he argues, "maleness is theatre".

It's hard to reduce a complex argument to one or two big ideas and this book, brilliant and eccentric as it is, offers less scope for such treatment than most. Returning at the end to his original question, Leader analyses the function of letters to provide startling insights into the ways men and women construct their identity and their different relation to love. "A letter can be a letter or it can be something else. If it is something else, it doesn't need to be posted," he suggests.

What he means by this is that women's letters and diaries, contrary to popular belief, may actually be messages to the self; it is the writing, not the sending, which matters. Leader points out that when a woman needs to convey something important to a man, like Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon, she confronts the addressee in person, putting herself in place of the unposted missive. This allows him to end with a teasing and characteristically thought-provoking final question: "If not posting a letter can be a sign of love, is receiving one the sign that love is undone?"