‘Fear of Flying’ author Erica Jong zips along 40 years after dropping her literary bombshell


Erica Jong with her 10-month-old poodles Simone, left, and Collette. Jong has sold 20 million copies of her novel ’Fear of Flying.’ (Melanie Burford/for The Washington Post)
October 7, 2013

Sure, you got your stories that deliver your pop-culture one-liners. You got your “Make my day,” or “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” or your ironic “Vote for Pedro.”

Rarer is the phrase that catches some of the zeitgeist and holds it there, beating and alive, in its tiny little word count. Here resides “Greed is good” from the cash-obsessed late 1980s; “Big Brother,” from the late 1940s fear of totalitarian regimes; and “Catch-22,” from the authorities-are-idiots 1960s. (Note irony to today’s headlines!)

Add to these Erica Jong’s 1973 two-word manifesto from “Fear of Flying,” which we can only print as “Zipless F---.”

The ZF — that ’70s icon. The guilt-free, pulse-pounding sexual escapade. Man and woman meet, go at it with glee and gusto, then trot back to their careers, marriages, kids, whatever. And the woman — free, liberated, maybe a little sweaty — owes nobody anything, least of all an explanation.

“The [ZF] is absolutely pure,” exults Isadora Wing, the 29-year-old heroine, in one memorable passage. “It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not ‘taking’ and the woman is not ‘giving’ . . . The [ZF] is the purest thing there is.”

It has been 40 years since “Fear” and its glamorous author landed like feminist blonde bombshells on American culture, selling 20 million copies here and abroad. The book mocked the idea that chaste was something smart women had to be, ridiculed the notion that children were the meaning of a woman’s life, and showed, both by narrative and by example, that the turbulent life of the artist was not only for men.

“I was aware I was committing a rebellious act,” Jong says down the line from her New York office, now 72 and still writing up a storm — essays, memoirs, poetry, fiction. “And I was sure no one would ever read it, no one would publish it.”

Is she kidding? Everybody read this. Women. Men. Teenagers, flipping through their mom’s paperback, looking for the dirty parts. John Updike famously reviewed it, comparing it to “Catcher in the Rye”; Henry Miller, who knew about sex in print, said it would make “literary history.”

It did, for there are two commemorative editions out to mark the anniversary, in both hardcover and paperback. The book continues to serve as a 1970s time capsule and, in its satire of the constraints still felt by professional and artistic women, still inspires.

“It was a cultural touchstone in the way that few books ever were, or can be now,” says Jennifer Weiner, whose own “Good in Bed” caused a sexual stir in 2001, and who wrote the introduction for one of the new editions of “Fear.” “If you asked women [of a certain age] about that book, most of them will have a very clear memory of it.”

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an English professor and director of the American studies program at Stanford University, rates it as a direct descendant of Walt Whitman, in celebrating the body — but, in this telling, a woman’s body.

“It wasn’t unusual to have sex talk in a book,” Fishkin says. “It was unusual to have it in a woman’s head, in a woman’s point of view.”

‘Voyage of self-discovery’

“Flying” was about a lot of things — identity, art, marriage, families, mothers, daughters, Judaica, psychoanalysis — but all the pearl-clutching was about the sex. Lots of it, all related breezily by Isadora, the struggling New York poet, wife, Jewish babe and emotional adventurer, who used four-letter words for all the acts and body parts. She saw sex as a key arbiter of her personal freedom.

She said, “I seem to live inside my [very graphic word for the female genitalia].” She said, “The diaphragm has become kind of a fetish for me. A holy object, a barrier between my womb and men.” She said, of the insatiable hollowness that ate at her, “And no matter how I filled it — with men, with books, with food, with gingerbread cookies shaped like men and poems shaped like men and men shaped liked poems — it refused to be still. Unfillable — that’s what I was. Nymphomania of the brain. Starvation of the heart.”

Forty years, 40 years . . . and, yeah, you’ve got descendants of “Fear” that are big hits, maybe like Weiner’s memoir, or maybe Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.” But the best-selling book about a woman’s sex life these days is the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series, which has sold more than 50 million copiesand counting. It’s about a naive young woman who sort of really likes it when an older, dominant man ties her up and does things to her.

This does not strike Jong as an indicator of social progress.

“ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is such a terrible book,” she says. “Nobody even copy-edited it. She has an orgasm and says ‘holy s---’ five times on a page. She signs a contract, he’ll be dominant, she’ll be submissive, she can’t afford this or that . . . a woman exchanging stuff for goodies? Is this new?”

And then, with some heat: “What Isadora had was a voyage of self-discovery, an existential journey. She wasn’t selling her a-- for money.”

Wave of feminist authors

We hasten to say that heroines in women-authored novels had been having sex in print before “Fear,” and sometimes they even enjoyed it.

But mostly the segment of American publishing about women and romance and their view of their sexual lives was of the thin, fast-reading Harlequin paperback variety.

Boiling around in the literary sub-strata, though, were the journals of Anais Nin, which were some of the first erotica published by a woman in the United States.

Then, perhaps starting with Grace Metalious’s “Peyton Place” in 1956, you had a woman penning a “shocking” bestseller about sex and shenanigans, in this case in a small town in New England. By 1966, Jacqueline Susann’s steamy “Valley of the Dolls,” about three young actresses struggling in show biz, sold more than 30 million copies. “The Happy Hooker,” Dutch prostitute and madam Xaviera Hollander’s explicit 1971 tell-all, was another gargantuan international bestseller.

But — from the point of view of literature — none of these was taken seriously.

Meanwhile, Erica Mann was growing up on the Upper West Side of New York City, in an “intellectual Jewish household.” A child of privilege, she got a degree in English from Barnard College, then a master’s at Columbia.

She married young, divorced, and remarried a psychiatrist, Allan Jong. She published two volumes of poetry and was deeply in touch with the wave of feminism then exploding.

In this stream of literature, “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan’s 1961 tome, was transformative, setting into play a new field for serious women’s studies. By decade’s end, Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch” was arguing that sex was the key to women’s liberation.

In this cultural gumbo, Jong was writing a novel through most of her 20s. It was heavily autobiographical. Isadora Wing, like her creator, was a blonde, wrote poetry, wanted to write serious fiction, was Jewish, had a mentally unbalanced ex, had a current psychiatrist husband, and had a turbulent relationship with her mother and sisters.

As Weiner points out, when you read “Fear” today, much of the sex isn’t that erotic, some of it is bad, and what stands out is how much Isadora was, like plucky young heroes of American lit before her, trying to find her identity in a confusing world.

“I approached it the same way I approached ‘Middlemarch,’ ” says author Min Jin Lee, whose “Free Food for Millionaires” in 2007 was regarded as a sensation in its tale of a young Korean-American woman searching for her own identity. “I have several foundational books, and [‘Fear’] is one that says a woman should be able to say what she wants to say. Erica’s courage still blows me away. You could write about sex and not be brave, just yucky. [‘Fear’] was so elegant, though.”

Lee and Weiner are clearly right — much of the book is about the development of a young artist who happens to be a woman who likes sex. It’s as much about her mother and her sisters as it is her men. Isadora’s mother had artistic talent but, as she told Isadora over and over, she gave it up to have children. It was not a decision she felt good about, and she sandblasts her daughters with guilt.

Early in the book, Isadora gets in a screaming match with her sister, Randy, who has nine kids and who revels in the mom thing.

Randy is telling Isadora she should stop writing and start having kids. To escape the argument, Isadora locks herself in a closet filled with her mother’s things. Slipping into her mother’s old sable coat (smelling faintly of Joy perfume), she sits and looks at the clothes and muses “. . .thirty-five years of buying and spending and raising kids and screaming . . . and what did my mother have to show for it? Her sable, her mink, and her resentment?”

And: “What did it mean to be a woman, anyway? If it meant being what Randy was or what my mother was, then I didn’t want it. If it meant seething resentment and giving lectures on the joys of childbearing, then I didn’t want it. Far better to be an intellectual nun than that.”

A useful counterweight

Today, Jong has pretty much all of what her avatar-like heroine longed for — an artistic career, a marriage and a daughter. She says the sexuality was “exaggerated by the media,” but she doesn’t deny throwing the literary pipe bomb. When she came up with the phrase “ZF,” her publisher at first told her she couldn’t print it. And was it close to home? You bet. At a 2008 conference about the book, her sister, Suzanna Daou, stood up to denounce her, saying that the book was largely about her and her husband, in unvarnished ways. Jong, who at first described her sister as “insane,” now says they’ve made up.

Is any of this resolved? Can we put “Fear” in a bucket and forget about it?

Not a chance. The ending of “Fear” is ambiguous — Isadora is committed to becoming an artist, but not at all certain she’ll settle down with her husband.

This, says Fishkin, is as it should be.

“Until there’s a more thoroughgoing change in gender relations,” she says, “it’s still a useful satirical counterweight to the overwhelming number of books that focus on male fantasies.”

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.
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