In his 1997 song “Highlands,” Bob Dylan reports a conversation between himself and a waitress. “She says, You don’t read women authors, do you?/… I said, you’re way wrong./She says, which ones have you read, then?/I say, I read Erica Jong.”
Erica Jong. The name closes the lyric like a punch line. There is perhaps no more woman-y woman author. Those four jouncing syllables connote a kind of vast female sexuality that seems almost ridiculously overwhelming. Paul Theroux has referred to a Jong heroine as a “mammoth pudenda,” and while that’s an awful thing to call someone, Theroux has hit upon just the squirmy kind of discomfort Jong inspires. As she herself has said, Jong will always be the woman who wrote “that book.” Fear of Flying. It was the great sex novel of the 1970s.
It was also the great divorce novel of the 1970s. Dylan probably wasn’t thinking of it, but his reference to Jong was particularly apt, as he wrote the great divorce album of the 1970s. While Blood on the Tracks was a descriptive portrait of a breakup, Fear of Flying was prescriptive. It was a novel that told women how to leave their husbands.
Between 1967 and 1977, the divorce rate in America doubled. In halter tops and patched jeans, women ran away from home. As a kid, I watched my mother’s friends split with their husbands. Their houses were places of upheaval, with fathers visiting from nearby apartments, wine-drinking at odd hours and mothers going on long vacations. What I couldn’t see was this: As the runaway wives humped along toward what appeared to be freedom, there was a figure beckoning from the other side, a figure who affirmed the decision to abandon the old life and attempt the new. This figure wasn’t a new lover. It was Erica Jong.
Jong, at the time a respected poet, published Fear of Flying in 1973 with no idea of the furor she was about to unleash. By 1974, the book was a bestseller and went on to sell more than 10 million copies all over the world. It is still in print. But the numbers don’t tell the story of the deep attachment women developed to Isadora Wing, the novel’s protagonist, and to Jong herself. Novelist Lois Gould blurbed the hardback: “She’ll take you farther from home than you ever dreamed you’d go.” The idea of being gone turned out to be enormously appealing. A 1975 Newsweek profile of Jong gives an idea of the book’s impact: “Runaway wives appear periodically on her doorstep, announcing their intention to move in with her.”
Fear of Flying‘s success has been attributed to its dirtiness. According to the critics, readers were lapping the book up as a kind of classy pornography. There are plenty of naughty bits: Isadora dreams, famously, of a “zipless fuck” with a perfect stranger, where in the moment of union, clothes fastenings simply melt away. She has capricious sex, in a variety of locations and positions. She reminisces about finger-fucking at age 13. She fantasizes about her husband performing cunnilingus during her period. But it wasn’t sex, exactly, that made women’s hair stand on end and conservatives’ noses wrinkle (after all, bestseller lists at the time were sticky with novels by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann). It was the unmistakable whiff of real life. Fear of Flying is filled with soft penises, missed orgasms, crabby partners–all the messiness of real sex. Here was someone–a female someone–telling the truth about sex. What was missing was the mythic glandularism of previous sexy fiction. What was missing was the porn. Jong spread not so much her legs, but the pages of her diary.