EPHRON, FRENCH, JONG
PLUS A DOZEN OTHER WOMEN WHO INSPIRED AND IRRITATED TWENTY-ODD YEARS OF YOUNG FEMINIST WRITERS
I began two novels in Heidelberg. Both of them had male narrators. I just assumed that nobody would be interested in a woman’s point of view. Besides, I didn’t want to risk being called all the things women writers (even good women writers) are called: “clever, witty, bright, touching, but lacks scope.” I wanted to write about the whole world, I wanted to write War and Peace—or nothing. No “lady writer” subjects for me. I was going to have battles and bullfights and jungle safaris. Only I didn’t know a damn thing about battles and bullfights and jungle safaris (and neither do most men). I languished in utter frustration, thinking that the subjects I knew about were “trivial” and “feminine”—while the subjects I knew nothing of were “profound” and “masculine.” No matter what I did, I felt I was bound to fail. Either I would fail by writing or fail by not writing. I was paralyzed.
—Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
Their ideas were intolerable, but their penises were silky.
—Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
Fear of Flying made me a tween women’s libber back in 1986. Or at least it kept me from putting away my childhood obsession with feminism. I was between sixth and seventh grades, and had just come home from my first summer at overnight camp. I’d learned the hard way at weekly dances that twelve-year-old boys didn’t go for my non-Guess gypsy wardrobe, my habit of carrying a book everywhere, and my compulsion to say exactly what I thought. It’s not that I imagined boys would be attracted by my love of the Brontë sisters and the ERA—I just didn’t realize those things would be romantic deal-breakers. I came home in August thinking I needed new clothes and less weird hobbies.
My hippie father, always worried that I was going to betray my upbringing and conform on him, came to the rescue with Erica Jong. “This is a very important book about being a woman,” he told me. “There’s some sexual stuff in it that’s maybe inappropriate for you—I guess you could skim those parts—but the chapters about her mother are really moving.” All I had to hear was that it was dirty. I started the book immediately.
I was an obsessive reader, especially of books by women. However, my favorites were often by men. From Huckleberry Finn to Portnoy’s Complaint, they usually had more excitement, more guts than those by women. I’d rewrite them in my head, giving Holden Caulfield a girlfriend who could match him in wit and discontent.
Fear of Flying was different, and not just because of the zipless fucking. The novel’s heroine, Isadora Wing, is smart, gorgeous, and a little zaftig. A born New Yorker, she buys fancy shoes and publishes books of poetry. And as sanguine literary symbols go, Isadora’s flood of menstrual blood is an answer to Portnoy’s poor abused liver. What really stuck, however, was that Isadora cared more about writing than men, possessions, anything. Sure, she may have been taking time away from her desk to screw her way through Europe with a randy shrink, but I was sure she was doing it as much for the material as the experience. Maybe my love of Jane Eyre didn’t doom me to Jane’s own half-life fate.
I wanted more in-print Isadoras, opining, ranting women from my mother’s generation who’d refused to learn to type, because they wanted to write books instead of taking dictation. They were there, though hard to find, and often only in brittle pocket paperbacks whose clandestine size confirmed that their authors were telling secrets: Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977); Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex Prom-Queen (1972) and Burning Questions (1978); Sara Davidson’s Loose Change (1977); Crazy Salad (1972), by Nora Ephron; The Female Eunuch (1970), by Germaine Greer; and Jong’s sequel to Fear of Flying, called How to Save Your Own Life (1977).
Fast-paced and poppy, they contended with themes—balancing ambition and love, family and work—as relevant today (unfortunately) as they were then. In an era when it was chronically square for smart women to give a shit about designer labels/wedding planning/personal grooming, they did not ever suggest that a woman’s problems should be solved by more shopping. (When Isadora Wing buys a pair of sexy gladiator-style sandals, she purchases them on a post-therapy stroll through Manhattan, while thinking about life, art, love, sex, writing, and politics.) Their characters’ navel-gazing tends to lead to change, rather than just more refined navel-gazing.
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