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The impact and legacy of Fear of Flying: Erica Jong’s classic feminist novel of 1973.

 

In the early weeks of 2016 I have spotted two starkly contrasting news items in the literary press.

(1)   Gillian Reynolds reported to Daily Telegraph readers (16th February 2016): “BBC Radio 4 is right to air the sex book that shocked the 1970s.”

 

Erica Jong’s 1973 bestseller, Fear of Flying, was set to be serialised during the regular Womans Hour programme the following week. Ms Reynolds explained that: “The novel was revolutionary in its time, and remains so, for its candour about what women think about men, sex, identity, fantasy, happiness, marital boredom, forbidden excitements and the world in general.”

 

      (2)    But then from The Independent literary festival at Bath came the news (4th March 2016) from Nick Clark the arts correspondent that: “The Restaurateur-turned-novelist Prue Leith has hit out at the publishing industry for underrating women’s writing.”

 

Ms Leith had told her audience: “I don’t want to sound carping and over-feminist … but if a man writes a love story it is seen not as commercial fiction or romantic fiction, but as offering a deep insight into the psychological condition.” Jodi Picoult had echoed these sentiments, claiming that novelists such as her are taken less seriously than their male counterparts.

 

The rise of Women’s Lib, and feminist literature: 1970s

 

You’d have to imagine that Erica Jong (now aged 73) would be deeply disappointed, although not necessarily surprised, to hear that British female novelists still complain of playing second fiddle.

 

With ten million worldwide sales of her book Fear of Flying in 1973 Erica Jong had surely drawn a line in the sand – an audacious line, but a nevertheless indelible one, that women novelists could punch their weight as strongly as the men? Let’s quote Gillian Reynolds again. “Jong’s novel is as much a classic as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s certainly a better read, and as vital a picture of a woman’s view of her own times as that of Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre.”

 

In the same year 1973 that the American authors Erica Jong and Nancy Friday were making waves as so-called ‘feminist erotic pioneers’ the foremost Women’s Liberation magazine in the UK had put on its boxing gloves, too.

 

Spare Rib magazine had been founded in 1972, two years after Britain’s landmark very first Women’s Liberation Conference at Oxford in 1970. In its 12th issue, in mid-1973, Spare Rib complained about gender stereotyping in the national press. Why were ‘women’s interest’ stories and features devoted usually to fashion and food? Spare Rib decided to light a beacon and henceforth “analyse the significance of events in relation to women’s lives and their unseen, undiscussed problems.”

 

But still in March 2016 a frustrated Prue Leith was battling to shake off her label as cook and caterer. “I think of myself as a novelist,” she asserted. “I haven’t written a recipe book in twenty years. I have made the shift from one kind of writing to another.” [The Flood of Love, her latest book, is her sixth novel.]

 

Fear of Flying – impact and legacy

 

I was not expecting to be shocked when I sat down to read Fear of Flying in March 2016. Sure, I knew that Henry Miller had used the word ‘bawdy’ to describe the exploits of the fictional Isadora during her odyssey in the USA and Europe to find her Holy Grail of ‘Zipless Sex’. But, truth to tell, I was shocked. Shocked above all by the sheer energy of Erica Jong’s storytelling and her highly-charged wit. The wit begins from the very start: the story opens with Isadora and her husband in the passenger seats of a Pan Am flight taking 117 psychoanalysts from New York to Vienna. “I’d been treated by at least six of them. And I’d married a seventh.”

 

Long before reaching the end of the book I was persuaded that Erica Jong had indeed written her story, at age of 30, like this:

 

“I wrote Fear of Flying in a mad rush, heart racing, adrenalin pumping, wanting to tell the truth about women whatever it cost me … I was determined to slice open a woman’s head and show everything happening inside.”

 

Different editions of the book have had colourful and witty front covers: images of aeroplanes, bathing costumes, bottoms, zips. But I can’t help wondering whether the front cover of Fear of Flying might most aptly contain an image of a door to the ladies’ rest room? Men: stay out!  For there were plenty of times in the narrative when, as a male reader, I felt like an intruder; an unnecessary presence. There is a lot of women’s ‘bathroom stuff’ and ‘bedroom stuff’ in the book.

 

By 1993, twenty years after publication of Fear of Flying, Erica Jong was evaluating its legacy. Aged then in her early fifties she looked back at herself as a “naïve, idealistic” young writer. With benefit of hindsight she concluded that the process of change, if it does come, is “serpentine rather than straight.”

 

And now in March 2016 we hear that an established author like Kathy Lette feels compelled to ask the question: should female novelists use male pseudonyms to get the acclaim they deserve? That must surely require Erica Jong to assert again in 2016, as she did in 1993, that there is still a need for Isadora’s adventures in Fear of Flying. “When outspoken women are no longer silenced with ridicule, we will know that we have achieved something like equality.”

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield

Bailouts

Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...

 


 

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