Saturday, December 11, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #6: Erica Jong (1984)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

During the eighties, feminism (like any political movement) was faced with the difficulty of evolving and diversifying in order to accommodate different views and the possibilities of reform. Some of those eclectic voices to emerge in feminism became part of a chapter in my book called The Many Faces of Feminism. One of those interviews was with author Erica Jong. In the seventies, Jong put herself on the literary map with her controversial roman a clef Fear of Flying (1973), which took on sexual taboos with complete irreverence. Her novel was narrated by its protagonist, Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing, a twenty-nine-year-old poet who had published two books of poetry. On a trip to Vienna with her second husband, she decides to indulge her sexual fantasies with another man. When I spoke to her in 1984, she had just published a sequel titled Parachutes and Kisses. The idea of sexual independence for women was the centerpiece of Fear of Flying, but the notion of sexual freedom and what that means in the eighties became the basis of our discussion of Parachutes and Kisses. 

kc : Looking back on the publication of your novel Fear of Flying back in the seventies, were you surprised that it had the kind of impact that launched you into the sort of notoriety you still have as a novelist today?

ej: You know, I started life as a poet and I always thought that it would be my fate to produce slim volumes of verse and earn my living as a college teacher of English. I didn't think my work would be published anywhere except in tiny little editions and my name would not be widely known. But I thought I would be considered a serious writer. As you suggest, fate dealt me a different hand. You see, my work came to prominence in the early seventies when women were all the rage and it seemed to be important at that point to define the relations between men and women and how they got that way. But the notoriety came into it when I wrote about the war between the sexes where the battle was nothing if not funny. What can be serious about a battle where the combatants go to bed together? Nobody seemed to realize that you could be funny and also be a feminist. 

kc: What led you to become a novelist?

ej: I had always wanted to write a novel. And because I was a woman who grew up in an age when writers were mostly men, the writers I admired were men. Saul Bellow's novels were male and the main characters in Philip Roth's novels were male. Every time I sat down to write a novel, I would create the protagonist as a male. As a result, I was forever writing these novels that didn't quite work. I didn't think anyone would give a damn about a woman's point of view which shows you how brainwashed I was. Now I had an editor at Holt, Rinehart & Winston who published my first two books of poetry and he read some some of those early drafts of my novels. He said, "Why don't you go home and write a novel out of the same female consciousness that I find in your poems?" And I said, "No one would be interested in a woman's point of view. Novels aren't about women." This is around 1972 when we're having this conversation. It isn't the Middle Ages! So I told him that I had this idea for a novel about a young woman who goes to a congress of psychoanalysts with her husband and she falls in love with a guy who turns out to be impotent. That turned out to be Fear of Flying. I wrote it and handed it to him by dropping the entire manuscript on a pile on his desk - clunk! - and ran out the door. I was so terrified that it wasn't a proper novel and so sure that no one would ever publish it. About two weeks later, he called me and said, "We'll publish it. It's wonderful." And that's how Fear of Flying came to be bought.

kc: What was the initial reaction when Fear of Flying came out?

Author John Updike
ej: It was thought to be a rather literary first novel about a rather literary graduate from New York who wanted to be a writer. It was published with very little fanfare. The early reviews said, "Another whiny feminist novel." You know, when are these women going to shut up? And then about three months after publication, it was discovered by John Updike in The New Yorker who decided that it wasn't a whiny feminist novel and rescued the book from oblivion. The word of mouth spread and nine months after publication Henry Miller discovered it and decided that it was a female Tropic of Cancer. By then, the books were nowhere to be found. But the subsequent reaction to Fear of Flying was that suddenly I'm not seen as a literary poet who wore spectacles and was thought to be non-commercial. I had suddenly become the Erica Jongs of this world. And it the Erica Jongs of this world had their way, women everywhere would be jumping from bed to bed and producing total moral degradation. So I had gone from obscurity to being multiplied into an entire tribe of viragoes who were bringing the downfall of Western Civilization.

kc: So what aspect of this "moral degradation" do you think touched a nerve?

ej: Well, it seemed a radical idea in 1973 that women liked sex. I remember people shouting me down on talk shows in the States. they were saying that women don't enjoy sex. Women don't have sexual fantasies. And a measure of how far we've come in the last ten years is that this dialogue would never occur today. I think this is partly the result of Fear of Flying and other books like it. But it was published to a storm of criticism and controversy and every one of my books - except Fanny, my retelling of the 18th Century novel Fanny Hill - has been published to that storm of controversy and criticism.

kc: Why do you think Fanny escaped the wrath that your other books encountered?

ej: People could deal a lot easier with Fanny. There were petticoats and bodices. And it seemed to be only about the 18th Century, so it was safely distant from people's concerns. But even that book, as much as anything I've written, was a comment on women today. Parachutes and Kisses is even more so about the women of the eighties.

kc: Well, I was going to suggest that between Fear of Flying and Parachutes and Kisses, we seem to have experienced a pendulum swing...

ej: Except I'm one of those people who thinks there never was a sexual revolution. I'm not denying that there were people who hopped from bed to bed and said that they'd slept with forty thousand people and then discovered that it was very empty. But I don't think that is a sexual revolution at all. I think a sexual revolution is having more open and healthy attitudes about towards sexuality. We went from having puritan repression to people doing quantity rather than quality. Americans have this distressing tendency to live their lives by Time magazine covers. And if Time says the sexual revolution is here, then they think they can sleep with as many people as possible. Then they get disappointed, or worse, and get herpes. They'll say, "Well, the sexual revolution is over." Why didn't they think in the first place that sex shouldn't be as complicated, as subtle, or as interesting as life's other important activities? Sex is an enormously powerful force in life. And what I'd like to see is people open to their own sexuality and open to their feelings, but not necessarily indiscriminate about sex.

kc: That's obvious from the changes that Isadora goes through from Fear of Flying to Parachutes and Kisses. The decades are different and the times have changed. It's like coming out of adolescence.

ej: Most of the literature we've read, including books by women, has been literature that's dealt with women coming out of adolescence into their twenties, or women at their 29th birthday and heading into their thirties. What we don't have is a lot of literature about women coming of age, coming to middle-age and coping with death and the new generation coming up to replace you. I think that my generation, the baby-boom generation, has had this strange experience which is that we were raised in the puritanical fifties, we came to adult consciousness during the Vietnam War in the sensual seventies and in the age of feminism, and now we are raising our children in the Reagan eighties. We are having the curious experience of finding the younger generation being more conservative than us. I imagine that it must have been like this for the feminists during the time of the First World War.

kc: What do you think has created this new wave of conservatism in the younger generation today?

ej: It has a lot to do with economic retrenchment. I think it also has a lot to do with this apocalyptic gloom that hangs over the earth. When I was a little girl, I didn't feel that the atom bomb was going to destroy us all. The generation that has been born since the mid-fifties and the early sixties have this apocalyptic consciousness. And what they're doing is becoming rather selfish. Let's get rich and drive around in limousines and let's go to black-tie parties and drink champagne. I mean, why save the world? Let's read Ayn Rand again. Bring back The Fountainhead. You sixties people wanted to save the world and you thought that doing good - doing a mitzvah - was a good thing to do. That's what I hear today from many people in their twenties.

kc: But don't you think that maybe we didn't leave them much of a legacy? Maybe we disappointed them.

ej: I think maybe the world disappointed them. We went into a recession. Money wasn't available and I think there was a sense that liberalism was a disappointment and a sense developed that sexual freedom was a disappointment. I mean, there's an astonishing swing back to a fascistic form of values. It's rather terrifying.

kc: Do you think that feminism has fallen victim to some of the same kinds of pendulum swings?

ej: Yes. When I was pregnant with my daughter Molly in 1977 and 1978, it was very unfashionable to be pregnant in New York. There were many feminists who were saying that pregnancy was a patriarchal trap. Then a whole bunch of women writers and celebrities got pregnant in their mid-thirties and it became a trend. I had a baby, then Nora Ephron had a baby and suddenly all of these starlets were having babies in their thirties. It seemed like another baby boom was upon us. But I remember walking down the streets of New York, with my belly out to here, with these hostile stares greeting me. People just looked daggers at my belly as if we don't do that anymore because it's kind of messy. I tell you it was a very funny time to be pregnant.

Author Henry Miller
kc: Given that you don't follow trends and you don't play to the crowd, what tradition do you find yourself comfortable writing in today?

ej: I feel myself to be working in the tradition of Henry Miller and Walt Whitman, and to some degree, Allen Ginsberg and William Blake. I'm on the side of the liberators. I'm on the side of the Dionysians and not the Apollonians. When I'm on talk shows like The Today Show, they always ask me, "How can you write like this? Won't your mother disapprove?" And I look in amazement and say that a writer is supposed to be a liberator. A writer is not supposed to worry about those disapprovals. I mean, that's what we're put on Earth for. The world does not applaud you for writing openly. People more often slam you than applaud you. So you have to have a strong sense of your own vision. And maybe it's the brickbats that make that sense even stronger.

  Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011,Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto (see               


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