Forty years ago, Erica Jong’s first novel upended the way women writers were perceived.
Not only did Fear of Flying cement a graphic two-word phrase into popular culture, but its freewheeling Isadora Wing and her journey of self-discovery forced readers to consider that women could seek sex for pleasure, write about it with frankness and insight — and be taken as seriously as their male counterparts.
But 40 years and 50 Shades of Grey later, female writers are still fighting.
“Sexism kind of predisposes us to see men’s work as more important than women’s, and it is a problem, I guess, as writers, we have to change,” Jong says. “We are the ones who can shift the view of these things, and it’s very important that we do.”
On Monday, Jong, 71, sits down with author Jennifer Weiner ( Good in Bed) to discuss the 40th anniversary re-release of Fear of Flying (Holt, $35) at Miami Book Fair International. The two will examine the idea that 27 million copies later, the mindset shift the book triggered hasn’t advanced far enough.
Fear of Flying addresses prevailing attitudes, circa 1973: “Until women started writing books there was only one side of the story. Throughout all of history, books were written with sperm, not menstrual blood.”
And women writers are still not taken as seriously or reviewed in major publications as frequently as men, Weiner says.
“My concern these days is that anything a woman writes that has to do with romance or marriage, those questions are made to feel trivial, and that means a lot of books that should be considered more carefully get dismissed by critics or called ‘chick lit,’ and they get these pink covers with cartoony martini glasses on them,” Weiner says.
“That is totally true,” Jong says from her home in New York. “It’s not an easy proposition. Women’s books are kind of discriminated against. If a man writes a book about his family stories people think of it as literature. If it’s a woman, she’s ‘spilling her guts,’ and it’s not art.”
You can’t underestimate the value of Jong’s trailblazing, says M. Evelina Galang, the director of creative writing at the University of Miami.
“What is significant is she was able to write something without sugar-coating and creating a space for women to write about sexuality and to talk about a feminist perspective,” says Galang, author of the novel Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery.
“For me, that goes beyond the body and talks about relationships and also about race, and she is one of the persons that actually gave me room to do that and, for that, I am grateful.”
In 1973, as the women’s liberation movement waged an ultimately unsuccessful fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and hit songs like Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman captured the zeitgeist , Fear of Flying was impossible to ignore.
"The interesting thing is that book was taken really seriously,” Weiner says. “John Updike reviewed it for The New York Times. Henry Miller wrote about it. Paul Theroux wrote about it — not nicely — but this was a book about a woman’s journey, and it mattered to culture and readers, and everyone had an opinion about it.”
Jong, of course, is inexorably linked with Isadora Wing. Both married their first loves in their 20s. The marriage — and, in Jong’s case, the next two — failed. (She has been married to her fourth husband, lawyer Kenneth David Burrows, since 1989.)
Both character and author would face a steep learning curve in their 20s. The book’s famous zipless f---, meaning sex without responsibility or encumbrance, was an approach associated with men in the pre-AIDS, free-love era of the 1970s and one that Isadora Wing was determined to pursue.
“It was a platonic ideal,” Jong wrote. “Zipless because when you came together, zippers fell away like rose petals. Underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff.”
The hookups, as they’d be called today, aren’t nearly as satisfying as the anticipation. Indeed, the sex in Fear of Flying is often not sexy at all.
“The book was so confused with sex literature — pornography — but I always thought it was a portrait of the artist as a young woman,” Jong says.
“I never thought it was pornography. I thought it was an honest book about what women think. It’s a book about a woman who wants to find out who she is and discover her freedom. She’s in her 20s … a sort of continuation of adolescence. You think you’re growing up but not quite.
“You’re trying to discover who you are and what you want to be in your life. Sexuality is a part of it but only a part, and I think much of the sexuality in the book falls flat. There’s a lot of bad sex. The fantasy is more the exciting part. I don’t think that has changed.”
Weiner, 43, laughs from her home in Philadelphia when she recalls her introduction to Isadora Wing. Then 12, she plucked the book from her parents’ shelf and surreptitiously devoured it throughout her adolescence, into college and beyond.
“Of course, I went right to the dirty parts like everybody else before me,” she says. “I remember it was sort of the first non-clinical look I’d gotten about what happens between men and women in the bedroom. I was fascinated. I didn’t realize until much later that what Erica was describing was really bad sex. I remember feeling educated. I had not a clue. I had much more of a clue when I finished reading.”
The book has held up, Weiner says.
“As a writer, it influenced me a lot in terms of being able to take on a subject in a frank and funny way. When I started thinking about writing and defining my own voice I was definitely very interested in what was possible with that subject matter.
“Tone-wise, I think the book raised so many questions that continue to matter for women today in terms of how to have a happy life, what satisfaction looks like and balance, and can you have it all.”
Jong thinks the book has made a difference.
“I see some changes that are really good. I see a lot of women living alone and enjoying it, and that’s different from the past. Women don’t feel they have to have a man with them to feel OK, and that’s new, and that’s kind of wonderful,” she said.
But her work isn’t done, Jong says.
“The GOP’s war on women has been very helpful to feminism. Women began to realize they had to keep fighting. As women we have to understand feminism is like democracy. You have to keep fighting for it. When you stop fighting the fascists come take it away. There will always be right wing people who want women barefoot and pregnant, and they never go away so you have to keep on fighting.”
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