No fear

Decades after she made the "zipless fuck" famous, Erica Jong still has a lot to teach young feminists about sex -- and speaking out.

By Jessica Valenti

Published April 4, 2006 10:37AM (EDT)

I'm probably one of the only women I know who didn't read Erica Jong's groundbreaking novel "Fear of Flying." That is, until I found out I would be interviewing her. Chalk it up as a generational thing. So reading "Fear of Flying" and "Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life" back-to-back proved to be quite the Jong tutorial.

Jong describes "Seducing the Demon" as the story of how she survived the post-"Fear of Flying" craziness. If the idea of having to "survive" a book that has more than 18 million copies in print seems a little much, don't worry, Jong feels the same way: "Famous people complain about fame, but they never want to give it back, myself included."

In "Seducing," Jong retells the story of her demons (men, addiction), her inspirations (family, exotic locales), and the writers that she admired along the way. It's witty, insightful and, above all, honest.

But there's no getting around the fact that "Seducing" is all Jong, all the time -- even the book design ensures that you don't forget it. The front cover features a black-and-white picture of a young Jong, all hair and lips and cuteness. The back cover is a more recent picture, the same hair and lips, but now a pink overcoat takes over the page. And yes, "Seducing" is a memoir, but I have to admit that I still found something off-putting about how much of her fabulous life I was inundated with. I mean, before you can even get to the name-dropping in the text, you're hit with a picture of Jong with James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg in the front pages of the book. We get it, you're famous.

Jong makes no apologies about telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the dirty truth. From a "hook-up" with Martha Stewart's husband to giving oral sex to a publisher with the hopes of getting a first edition book, Jong doesn't hold back explaining in full (and often unflattering) detail the mistakes she made along the way. That kind of honesty commands respect, but there were times when I found myself wondering if I really needed to know that it took the before-mentioned publisher forever to come because the "sap was congealed." "Seducing" is all truth and candor, but how much truth can one person take? After all, even self-aware egotism is still egotism.

After speaking with Jong, however, I was left wondering whether my initial eye rolling over her frankness and honesty about fame was just my own discomfort with a woman writer not giving a shit what anyone thinks. (Even though that's how I'd like to think of myself, strangely enough.) Let's face it, Erica Jong is famous. And talented. So why should she pretend to be anything but? It's not as if you see male writers apologizing for their popularity and amazing lives.

Jong spoke to my concerns (and more), and did it in a way that left me a bit shamed at how harsh I had been in my original take on the book. I had judged "Seducing" within the paradigm that Jong is working so hard to change -- punishing women writers for transgressing.

The truth of it is, I saw myself in the book more than I would have liked to. A book that I thought was all about her, really became all about me. And maybe that's the point.

What struck me most about "Seducing" was that it all seemed to come back to "Fear of Flying" -- you seem to have this love-hate relationship with it. You credit "Fear" with propelling your career and changing your life, but you also say that it almost "obliterated" everything. That's strong language for a book that was so successful. What exactly did it destroy?

Of course I feel lucky, I feel blessed, to have had a book that sold so many copies and established my name all over the world and made me "a brand." You can't help that; you know how few writers get that and how lucky you are. I know so well that most writers don't make more than $5,000 a year for their writing. So I know I'm blessed. But also because it intersected with the time in such a particular way, it sort of obliterated everything else I've done. "Seducing the Demon" is my 20th book ... but "Fear of Flying" is always the book that people speak about. And it's very nice and I'm very grateful, but I wish to hell people would read my poetry or something else. Complaining about success is never nice, so I don't want to go on.

Right. You say you know that writers don't make that much money and that you feel blessed, but reading your advice to writers there were times where I felt a bit of a disconnect -- you talk about flying off to Venice for inspiration, and hobnobbing with the literati and having passing conversations with Barbra Streisand. I mean, given that you've led this extraordinary life, how can you still connect with young writers, let's just say, holed up in their shitty apartments in Brooklyn?

I do a lot of teaching ... and so I think I know how hard it is for young writers, how they have to work two jobs to survive. I've also been privileged to get involved with the Woodhull Institute [a nonprofit that provides leadership training for young women].

So it's important for you to foster relationships with young women writers?

Well, I think the next stage of feminism is mentoring. The problem with feminism in the second wave was that we fought so much among ourselves and I think we did so much damage to the movement ... and I think the next wave, the third wave, is women mentoring younger women and women helping younger women to enter the political process and the writing world. I care very much about that. And I really love to teach, so I'm not out of touch.

You know, what you say about the second wave of feminism -- I think we still see that now, we're still fighting among ourselves. The exclusiveness of the second wave has definitely left its mark on how the third wave functions, which is good because I think it's important that younger feminists make sure we don't repeat those same mistakes. But I don't think the trend of feminist-on-feminist bashing has really gone away.

I remember that my constant rant in those days was, you just can't make it seem that only lesbian separatists are feminists. It's fine to be a lesbian, lesbians should have full civil rights, they should be able to marry, they should be able to adopt children or have children and share custody. They should be able to inherit property from their partners, which is happening more and more in certain states, thank god, but we shouldn't give out the idea that you have to be a lesbian in order to be a feminist. Because -- let's face it -- most women in the world aren't. And we're going to lose our grass-roots support. And people would disagree with me and mock me and say I was just a male-identified feminist and I wore lipstick and that was so bad, and I wore heels and that was so bad. I think that feminism has to be a very broad and an all-encompassing movement.

Is that why in a previous Salon article on the word "feminism" you said that you thought it was "very smart" to consider using a new word? Because after reading the book, and thinking about what you say about language and using it to tell the truth, if we use a new word isn't that watering down the truth of feminism? Or do you think it's more important that we have a broader movement and reach out to people who may be afraid of the word "feminism"?

It's a perplexing problem because it seems to me that every word that becomes associated with women is eventually downgraded; it becomes pejorative sooner or later. And acknowledging that, maybe it doesn't matter what we're called. I would say: We are women and men who believe that both sexes should have totally equal rights, but we don't believe that both sexes are exactly the same, biologically. We are not. And I don't know what the word for it would be, but I'm very troubled by the fact that when I run into my daughter's friends, they feel that the feminists of the second wave betrayed them because they don't have child care unless they're rich. Our country is cutting Head Start, day care, women's clinics, women's health, children's health. The suffragists yelled and screamed about it, the second wave yelled and screamed about it, but there is no political will to change it. And until we do, women and men with small children and without big incomes [will continue to be] penalized.

Even in the third wave, it's not something that's really discussed. It seems sometimes that it's all reproductive rights, all the time. There's no substantive discussion about child care.

I mean, I know of women in my daughter's cohort who are married to bankers and they can afford the $800 a week nanny. OK. Lucky them. But most people can't.

I've actually read that some people pay almost 50 percent of their income for child care.

Yeah. If I were running a political movement today, I would focus on children and how parents are being screwed. Why is there no political will to support parents? That's where my mind is now. I'm thinking we're going to lose choice, and we may have to lose choice to get it back in a more permanent way. Which sounds like a radical thing to say, but I'm afraid that we will lose it because now we have sonograms and we can see all the little fingers and toes. And also because the right-to-lifers have the better slogan. Our slogan sucks. Choice is very abstract. Life is not. We will get choice back -- but it may take three generations. But my focus right now would be on how parents are penalized for having children -- both men and women.

So you think that should be the focus for the next generation of feminists?

I do. Because I think it's critical, and it's never been addressed properly in this country.

I agree. Back to the book for a minute -- you say at one point that a writer's life is "silence and despair." It seems to me that you've had a pretty damn good life.

Well, when I'm sitting at the desk not being able to write line one, it's silence and despair! It's not so easy to put the pen to the legal pad or type the first sentence on the computer screen. It's difficult and it's lonely ... And you're always self-critical ... I've been so blocked throughout my life at different times.

You wouldn't know it from the book. You say that "humans don't feel any experience is complete unless it's recorded." How did that play into how you chose which experiences to write about? Because I think there are times when it seems as if things are there just for shock value. I mean, what's really the point of writing about having an affair with Martha Stewart's husband? Or a graphic description of giving oral sex to a publisher? Are these really the experiences that you need to "complete"?

In the book I made a decision that I would write about all the terrible mistakes I made as a young writer. And all the self-deceptions. And all the times that I found myself in a compromising situation that I later regretted. But that in my vulnerability and naiveti -- and perhaps a desire for experience to write about -- I fell into these reckless and stupid things. And I thought that thematically that ... worked with the idea that I was trying to write a book about how I survived as a writer. And boy did I do some stupid things ... It's really about all the mistakes you make along the way as a writer. And I present it as a mistake. I'm sorry I did it. It's not presented as, Look at me, I'm so smart. It's sort of, I'm so stupid and I did so many idiotic things, but I think that readers can identify with that. Because nobody grows up without making a gazillion mistakes. And admitting to them. I mean, at some point along the way you have to acknowledge what an asshole you are.

You would hope so!

Or you don't grow up!

Well, what also struck me was that when you wrote about certain experiences -- the affair with Martha Stewart's husband or even your daughter's rehab experience, for example -- you were careful to say that all of these people in one way or another had spoken or written about you before. The mother in your daughter's novel went to Europe instead of taking her daughter to rehab (which wasn't the case in your real life), Martha had said nasty things about you -- was this just your chance to get a last shot in? To set the record straight?

Oh dear. Well, I didn't really have an affair. I had a "hook-up." What kids call a "hook-up." I don't know that I care that much about setting the record straight. Since "Fear of Flying," it's been my experience that one minute people are telling me that I'm a pornographer and a tramp and a commie kike bitch, and the next minute someone is writing me from Russia and saying, "I'm writing my Ph.D. thesis on you." I don't really think what people think about you is so important. It's taught me that the very same book can get opposite reactions. And maybe that's a good thing for a writer to know about. So setting the record straight? ... I don't really need to set the record straight.

Well that also kind of relates to what you write about women writers pushing boundaries. I thought a lot about what you had to say about women writers and suicide -- that whenever women writers transgress, they have to punish themselves. Something that has always stuck with me is something [Edgar Allen] Poe said, that "the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world." That's the best story. So I wonder if women writers who kill themselves are, in a way, trying to complete that narrative, to make the best story.

I think they are. They are trying to complete the narrative. There's also another paradigm that one finds often, which is the woman losing the child. Instead of committing suicide. I mean it's true that Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf and many others committed suicide and completed the narrative of the doomed maiden. Or the doomed mother. But also think about "August Is a Wicked Month," by the wonderful Irish writer Edna O'Brien, where the mother goes away on holiday, and the father takes the little boy on holiday, and the mother for the first time since her separation from the boy's father has a wonderful sexual experience and that very moment the little boy is run over. Or Mary McCarthy's "The Group" -- the most sexual of the girls dies first as a suicide. So this paradigm of the doomed rebel, the woman who reaches out either for sexuality or rebellion or something different in her life and dies. It's all through our literature. We have all these legends, really female legends, of women who either die or lose their children -- which is like dying -- because of reaching out beyond what women are allowed. It may be sexual, it may be intellectual, but they are rebelling in some way and they are stricken down for it.

Well how are we -- or, at least, women writers -- supposed to stop that narrative?

It's not to be suicides and spinsters. As I say in one of my poems, "suicides and spinsters -- all our kind." Partly by embracing life instead of embracing death, partly by writing and living. And I've tried to do that because I really wanted to change the paradigm.

Are there any young women writers now that you think are challenging that paradigm? Or challenging the idea of female invisibility or silence?

I think you have to have produced a body of work to see the trends of the paradigms and the fables, so it's hard to say which of the many talented young women who are out there, and there are many ... But I think that a lot of women of my daughter's generation, women in their 20s and 30s, believe that it's possible to be a writer, a mother and a wife, without necessarily killing yourself. It's hard, god knows. But I think we are shifting the paradigm.

Jessica Valenti

MORE FROM Jessica Valenti

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Writers And Writing