Erica Jong: Love bites

Her first novel, 'Fear of Flying', was the original tale of sex in the city. 30 years on, Erica Jong talks to David Usborne about lust, literature and how today's women have lost the plot
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The Independent Culture

Rica Jong, in jeans and a sort of artsy blouse in marble shades of green, settles on to the sofa of her large Upper East Side apartment and ponders where she is at sexually nowadays. Coupling with strangers on trains no longer holds appeal, even as a fantasy. Fifteen years into her fourth marriage this seems like a good thing. She is, she admits with a giggle, very interested in tantric sex right now. Insisting she is no kind of expert, the aim, she says, is "to experience orgasm through the whole body, not just your genitals".

Rica Jong, in jeans and a sort of artsy blouse in marble shades of green, settles on to the sofa of her large Upper East Side apartment and ponders where she is at sexually nowadays. Coupling with strangers on trains no longer holds appeal, even as a fantasy. Fifteen years into her fourth marriage this seems like a good thing. She is, she admits with a giggle, very interested in tantric sex right now. Insisting she is no kind of expert, the aim, she says, is "to experience orgasm through the whole body, not just your genitals".

Goodness, such racy talk from a 62-year-old woman who only recently became a grandmother. But then it has been Ms Jong's burden since 1973 that most conversations with outsiders, especially journalists, must necessarily meander quickly into matters carnal. That was the year she published her wildly successful first novel, Fear of Flying. The book, which sold 7 million copies in the US alone, broke barriers in its candid discussion of women and their appetites for sex.

With one leg tucked beneath her and her hands occasionally straying to her black standard poodle, which goes by the name of Belinda Barkowitz, Jong does not immediately look like someone you would feel comfortable talking to about orgasms and private parts. Don't get me wrong. With her thick blonde hair and enquiring eyes, she is clearly one spunky kind of grandmother. Even so, it takes a certain courage to ask this apparently well-to-do lady of high-society Manhattan what her thoughts are nowadays about the "zipless fuck".

That was the phrase anyone who has read Fear of Flying (if not you then mostly likely your mother) is most sure to remember from it. The book, heavy with elements of autobiography, traces the adventures of Isadora Wing who, aged 29, abandons her husband of five years because, well, he just isn't lighting her fire any more. "Even if you loved your husband," she wrote at the book's beginning, "there came that inevitable year when fucking him turned as bland as Velveeta cheese: filling, fattening even, but no thrill to the tastebuds, no bittersweet edge, no danger."

The zipless fuck is what Isadora discovers as she breaks free of her marital monotony, travels to Europe and rediscovers the heat of sex with, among other people, a stranger on a train. It is sex unbridled from all the baggage of marriage, monogamy and fidelity. "The zipless fuck was more than fuck," she told her enraptured readers. "It was a Platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. Tongues intertwined and turned liquid. Your whole soul flowed out through your tongue and into the mouth of your lover."

With that one book's release, Jong became the prophetess of sexual fulfilment for women around the world. Its impact, at a time when the women's movement was in full bloom, was undeniably enormous, not least on her own life, as people in almost equal numbers either applauded her for helping them explore their own uncharted sexual fantasies, or excoriated her - and here we are talking mostly about men - for writing such a "dirty" novel.

"At the beginning, it was sort of a cataclysm. You can't believe how many stupid people there are out there and you have to learn how to protect yourself," she explains. "I am talking about people who find your number in the phone book and appear at your door. I wasn't very good at that and I never expected it to happen. It was really tough. There are a lot of crazy people out there who want to stalk you."

Jong says she eventually learned to ignore the fuss and attention and get on with her life, and more writing. Her eighth novel, Sappho's Leap, is an imagined narrative of the life of the Greek poetess who was writing her own (mostly bisexual) lexicon of love in verse 600 years before the birth of Christ. She is also a prolific writer of poetry herself. Does it bother her that in spite of such an expansive oeuvre it is still Fear of Flying and the zipless fuck that is likely to be her literary legacy, if not the actual words on her tombstone? It does not, is her instant reply. Look back in history and most famous writers are remembered for just one of their works, she replies. It just happens that in her case she hit the mother lode with her first novel. And she is still dead proud of it.

"I think it's a very young book. It's full of energy and had the guts to say a lot of things that women hadn't had the courage to say and it certainly opened a lot of doors. When I meet young women writers particularly, they say, 'Thank you, Erica, you opened the door for us.'"

This sounds a little immodest. But Jong admits that, in a sense, her success was accidental. She happened to write about women and sex at the right moment. "I really think I was a mouth voicing something that was going on in the culture of the time. f I happened to be the one who wrote that book. But in the way that writers do and painters do, I was pouncing on something that was in the culture and I just wrote the fable about it. The zeitgeist was talking to me."

The timing was right in two ways, in fact. She was tapping into not just the sexual revolution of the late Sixties and early Seventies but the literary revolution also. "We were coming off a period where writers couldn't go into the bedroom without trailing asterisks. But suddenly there was this huge sigh of relief on the part of American writers that we didn't need to do that any more. We had Couples by John Updike and Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth, I think in '67 and '69, and then my novel in '73. And there was a feeling that, 'Oh my god we don't have to wear masks any more'. It was an exuberant period and a lot came out of it. Women's freedom and eventually, I would say, gay literature also came out of it. Things were being written that couldn't have been written about before."

If written today, Fear of Flying would surely disappear without a trace. Sex is not a subject easily written about with any freshness now because it is everywhere. "I know a lot of writers who have been cautioned by their publishers not to write too much about sex, because it's old hat. I think that's a step backwards. It's not because people aren't interested in sex, people are always interested in sex. But that feeling of exuberance has gone."

The book would vanish also, I suggest, because the taboos she was tackling have been overcome. The battle has been won. Hasn't it? "Sort of won," she replies. "Younger women are more assertive; they believe they have the right to sexual pleasure. They believe they have the right to demand sexual satisfaction and they believe they have the right to experiment and have affairs with women." On the other hand, she argues, it's still true that "girls who sleep around, like Isadora Wing, are devalued as sluts. So it hasn't been completely won."

But Jong is not certain that the victories will remain intact for ever, because of what she sees as a gathering conservative backlash and because of that "monkey" in the White House. She is not a fan of George W Bush and is bursting for him to be defeated by Senator Kerry. (When Bill Clinton spoke at the Democratic Convention in Boston in late July, Jong watched on the television and cried.)

"People suddenly got very scared by the Sixties and early Seventies and, in a weird way, we have Bush because of the Sixties. It unleashed a reaction far beyond what the freedom was. And we have had a cultural reaction against it. We have the Congress of the US wasting their energy talking about a constitutional amendment against gay marriage - please - when there are so many real problems like terrorism, schools coming apart, the deficit. Society has been transformed. But there is a very strong reaction against it, or this monkey wouldn't be president. This horrifying, horrifying person."

The point, she says, is that much of what women have won for themselves in the 31 years since Fear of Flying could be taken back from them very soon. And she frets that the younger generation of women don't even see the danger that the far right in America represents. There is a complacency among them. She is especially exercised about the moves in Washington to roll back women's rights to abortion.

"I don't think young women are paying attention. It may be that they have to lose their rights and fight again for them to realise what their mothers fought for. They have had so much freedom. But what happens if you can't get contraception? Because these people who want to take away abortion also want to take away contraception. They aren't saying that yet. First they want to outlaw abortion and then they want to say 'Just say no' and then it is not very far from that to begin saying women are murderers if they use contraception."

One area where she sees progress has been made is in gay rights. Her strong feelings about the need for gay men and women to win the right to marry are driven in part by her own family and her memories of a gay aunt on Long Island. The aunt died a few years ago but not before she suffered the indignity, in her mid-eighties, of being dumped by her female partner of 40 years. Because she had no legal rights, she was left with almost nothing. "She got cast aside at the age of eighty-something, instead of getting half of everything. If she had been married, she would have gotten half of everything, instead she was lonely and alone."

Part of her fascination with Sappho, she explains, and the myths of the island of Lesbos, is what those times have to teach us about sexuality. "One reason to go back to Ancient Greece is to better understand our sexual protocols, especially to Lesbos, where bisexuality was common and a normal part of life. That is quite an important part of the book. They would be baffled by our straight-gay dichotomy. In a way that was much more civilised than now, where we have to choose a lifestyle." Jong is hopeful that the time will soon arrive when the gay-straight divide becomes irrelevant.

The novel is, above all, however, an attempt to rehabilitate Sappho the poetess, whose reputation was diminished in part, she says, because of her bisexuality. Scholars from Roman times onwards proclaimed that she died by taking a suicidal leap from a cliff on Lesbos after her love for a young man went unrequited. Jong instead has her stopping at the brink and beginning to tell the tale of her life before that moment. "The ability to reclaim the female hero, who has always been put down, excites me. Well, she jumped off a cliff. Well, we only have fragments of her work. Well, anyway she was a lesbian. Here was another great woman who was sort of tossed off in this way. It's really fun to reclaim our heroines and it has been a great interest in all my books." Sappho, after all, "invented the vocabulary of Eros. There is no poet who came after, from Ovid to Sylvia Plath, who did not take from her their vocabulary of erotic love. She is up there with the greats."

In the end, Jong is coy about her own sex life just now. And why shouldn't she be? She mentions Tantric sex, without really saying whether she is trying it (although there is a sauciness in her smile as she mentions it). But she does want us to know that if she was once an Isadora, she no longer is. Women's sexual priorities change as they grow older. "One does become much more discriminating. You don't stop having sexual feelings and you don't stop having sex but you are not as likely to pick a man on the train and it doesn't even seem so interesting any more."

'Sappho's Leap' is out now (Arcadia, £11.99). To order a copy at the special price of £9.99, inc. P&P, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897