This month marks the 40th anniversary of Erica Jong's novel Fear of Flying, in which a 30-ish woman seizes and celebrates her power as a sensual woman. For women of a certain age (which would include this writer, who, by the way, hates that expression!), it was a book that changed our lives. But how do young women feel about the book and about Jong, whose daughter, the 30something writer Molly Jong Fast, often introduces affectionately as "my mother the sex object" or "my mother, the feminist icon"? I talked with Jong about what her book means to several generations.
Sara Nelson: Fear of Flying has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide over four decades. There have been frankly sexual books before and since [see chart below], but this one is still considered groundbreaking. To what do you attribute its staying power?
Erica Jong: I think people love books that help them change their lives, in whatever way. Books that give them courage. In the era that I grew up in, we had many novels about women who were in scary, awful marriages, couldn't break free, couldn't imagine their lives in a different pattern... so in a way I was rebelling against that when I wrote Fear of Flying. I wanted to write about a woman who changed her life. A lot of the books we read about women, the women were either bodies or minds, never the two together. I remember thinking I wanted to write a book about a woman who was very smart and very sexual. There weren't a lot of them out there.
SN: What have readers said to you over the years about Fear of Flying?
EJ: Very often I'll hear from men who say 'Whenever I saw that book on a woman's night table, I knew I was going to get lucky.' But women have often said that the book gave them a lot of relief. "I thought I was a freak," they'll say. "I thought I was a bad girl, because I was having 'bad thoughts' about sex. And then I read this and realized I was normal." Sometimes, I'd be standing there after a reading, and women would come up to me and say, "I remember exactly where I was when I read THAT BOOK' -- and they always said 'THAT BOOK.'" Sometimes, now, when I'm walking through Grand Central Station, someone will notice me and yell out: "Keep on writing." That's nice. That's really nice.
SN: In the novel, a woman named Isadora Wing, discovers she can have 'zipless f#$@,' a/k/a unencumbered sex just for the pleasure of it. That was a revolutionary idea at the time, but maybe today it's a little less shocking. If you were to write a Fear of Flying for the21st century, how would it be different from the original?
EJ: Actually, I don't think it would be all that different, at least not in terms of the broader themes of the novel. Being a woman today is about the same stuff as it was then: embracing your own soul, finding a man (or woman) who celebrates you for who you are, having your own self but also being able to have an intimate relationship with a partner.