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Some Things Never Change: "Fear of Flying" Still Soars

Erica Jong

This month marks the 30th 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.

Erica Jong was neither the first nor the last author to make waves with the literary Establishment.  Here are some titles that led up to, and out of Fear of Flying.

Chatterley Chatterley
This  sexually graphic tale of a gamekeeper and a wellborn woman challeneged traditional notions of class and sexuality, which was one reason it faced a 30-year road to American publication.  
Portnoy Portnoy
A sexually explicit exploration of a young Jewish boy’s emerging sexuality.
Jong Jong
While most sexually explicit books up to this point were written by men, this debut from a Barnard-trained poet and scholar was the first to discuss women’s sexuality in a conversational, mainstream way. The book has sold 20 million copies over four decades and paved the way for...

Irving's fourth – and some would say, breakthrough – novel was, according to Jong, influenced by Fear of Flying’s frank depiction of sexuality and the examination of the lives of women. Jenny Fields, the protagonist's nurse-mother, conceived him in a kind of zipless manner, after all.
Franzen Franzen
Franzen might protest, but Jong believes that the character of Patty Berglund, the heroine and author of the memoir-inside-a-novel is a Flying-like character for her yearning to break out of a boring, sexually unsatisfying marriage.
James James
The most obvious descendant of Fear of Flying: a mainstream novel that portrays sexuality frankly. But Jong points out that the submissive nature of the heroine is, in fact, anti-Isadora Wing, because she chooses to be a man’s "slave." Regardless, it's hard to imagine that 50 Shades (and its three sequels) could ever have taken off if we hadn’t all experienced some fear of flying.

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