Interviews Marianne Brace
Saturday 21 June 1997 23:02

Feminist writer Erica Jong, 55, shot to fame in 1973 with her first novel `Fear of Flying'. It has sold over 12 million copies. Her other novels include `How to Save Your Own Life', `Fanny' and `Of Blessed Memory'. An award-winning poet, she has also written a study of Henry Miller. She has a daughter and a step-daughter and lives in New York with her fourth husband. Literary critic and feminist scholar Marilyn French is 66. She has a PhD from Harvard and is author of four novels including `The Women's Room' which has sold 20 million copies. In 1992 she was diagnosed with cancer and later had a heart attack. Divorced, she has two children and lives in New York and Florida

ERICA JONG: We must have met at the time The Women's Room came out. I have no recollection of the occasion. The book was sent to me. I read it. I thought it was impressive. I knew Marilyn was a woman who had waited a long time to publish her book and that she had had a whole other life before that.

That year, 1977, was a critical year for the Feminist Movement. It was the year in which it split between separatist feminists and feminists who wanted to live in the world. At the time I was a kind of endangered species. People were saying, "Oh, Erica, you're naive, we can never have a truce between the sexes." I always felt that feminism made a terrible mistake by alienating women who loved men and wanted children, that it was a tactical error because it was like saying to most of the women in the world, "We don't want you."

Marilyn is fiercely intelligent. She's written a book in The Women's Room that a lot of women passionately identified with. I always had this feeling that if a new woman comes along with a powerful book you wanted to say "Welcome". It's an article of faith with me. I understand how hard it is to be a public woman. I really believe that women have to support other women. It wasn't done for me. Older women writers treated me like shit from the moment I appeared. Remember, I was famous before Marilyn, although she's older than I am. I wanted to make it clear that we reach out and embrace each other.

We both met up at a party at Marilyn's house after her book was published and at a couple of feminist congresses where people were reading from their work. We did meet for lunch, a couple of times. We talked about literature. I'm very much a defrocked academic and so is she. She's not even defrocked, she finished her PhD, I didn't. Marilyn's very, very smart. She takes a long view like an anthropologist and doesn't just look at the moment. But I worry about the way her attitudes are infected with bitterness which makes her beef seem personal rather than general.

When I encountered Marilyn recently, I saw that she's still doing that divisive stuff and I think that's very old-fashioned. It's a feminism of blame which I can't stand. We ought to be beyond that. I regard my ancestors as Mary Woolstonecraft, Elizabeth I and Simone de Beauvoir. These were women who did not think they had to trash men in order to be feminists.

Marilyn is very intolerant of dissent. At the Hay-on-Wye festival [in March] she was a darling to my daughter, very nice and maternal. It was fine. But at a reading in Manchester the next night she just had to let it all out and say that she thought I was an idiot for thinking psychologically about men's problems.

I was quite dismayed by her method of argumentation. I really think that people who are on the same side of an issue have to agree to disagree. You can't just lash out at somebody and say, "That's a stupid remark." I had said something psychoanalytic about the nature of men growing up, and it sounded suspiciously Freudian to Marilyn. She actually got very angry because if there's anything that sounds vaguely Freudian she gets upset about it.

I don't care if somebody's rude to me, I'm a public figure. I've been one for 25 years and I know how to handle it. What worries me is that women my daughter's age look at feminists who act that way and say, "I don't want to be one of those."

Marilyn has gone through this ghastly cancer treatment. She is amazing. Maybe she was tired. She told another feminist, this young woman who was very timid, to shut up. I think we have to set some sort of better example. It doesn't make sense to me this "all men are shits and all women are saints." I just know that isn't true. Intellectually, I find it offensive. Marilyn is out of date. There's a vast amount of anger in Marilyn and we want our movement based on a healthy disapproval of injustice, not on a personal vendetta.

MARILYN FRENCH: I published The Women's Room in 1977 and had been travelling a great deal with the book. In 1979 I decided to move to New York because my family was there and my Harvard friends were pretty well dispersed across the country. I ended up on the Upper West Side.

What I remember was one day a package arriving with a dozen champagne foods from Tiffany's and a note saying "Welcome to New York" from Erica Jong. How she knew I was in New York I have no idea. There must have been a phone number or an address because I called her, or wrote to her, to say thank you and we had lunch.

Erica was famous for Fear of Flying. It wasn't the kind of book I would read as a rule. I was really very academic, teaching literature in college. Many of my students were good little Catholic kids and they read it and did not know what to think. So they said to me would you please read it. And I had to tell them that it was a perfectly fine book. There was nothing wrong with women being sexual. Did they like Tom Jones? Well, here was Tom Jones in female guise.

I found Erica a sweet, generous person. It had more to do with the expression of her eyes and smile than with the things she said. Her voice was exactly the same as it is now. She seems to me now a bit tamed-down. We all change as we get older. With a lot of us it appears as toughness. She doesn't seem tough, she seems a little hurt.

Erica was very earnest about things. There was this little shy thing in her eyes that wanted you to like her, to approve of her and tell her she was a legitimate writer. She never said it. It was just there in her facial expression. I gave it wholeheartedly, in as far as I had the capacity to give it. I always try to affirm women because they get so little affirmation from the world.

I was older than she. Erica seemed almost like a student, she was so young in some ways. Tender is the word that describes her. She wanted intellectual reinforcement. She wanted me to know she wasn't really like her heroine Isadora, which was very clear, even though she was pretty and sexy. She put emphasis on the fact that she hadn't had that kind of uninhibited sex and she wished she could. I do find it amusing that people always assume that women's books - not men's - are autobiographical because women have no imagination and no intellect, so they could never make up a story, right? It has to be their own life.

For a year or two we would have the occasional lunch. We talked about literature and literary reputations. We both saw how differently women were treated from men by reviewers and the critical establishment. We both understood what gets done to you, how you get impaled by your public image. Erica was kind of burdened in those days. She was on the cover of People magazine with Henry Miller, being a kind of adorable nymphet. This image was really quite false to who she was. Erica was a scholarly young woman, probably inhibited and shy. She felt wronged.

I don't think Erica is considered to be part of the Women's Movement - not by the people I know. I think she is. But then I have a very, very broad notion of the Women's Movement. I think Erica felt almost like a missionary in a much milder way than me. She probably felt - she never said this - she wanted to make it okay for women to have desire and act on it. Erica is important in that she helped to legitimate the subject of sex for female characters. That's a major accomplishment.

We were friendly for a couple of years. Erica would come down from Connecti- cut. She had a BMW or something and a young man drove it for her. We last saw each other in the early Eighties. We drifted apart. I really don't know what happened. I think Erica got involved with a new man. I met her at a peace march in Central Park in 1980. She was not friendly and she was with this guy and I was annoyed with her for behaving that way.

It was an accident that we shared a platform at the Hay-on-Wye festival. I was very happy to see her. In Hay, Erica and I didn't have a problem. The next night, however, we were in Manchester and had a terrible disagreement. I'm afraid I was very rude.

I was saying that I thought most men were not entirely happy with their lives but they couldn't change them and that they needed to have a little more courage, when Erica interrupted me. She was not insulting at all, I was the one who was insulting. She felt I was being superficial or something like that. She goes into Freud and I say, "I don't believe you believe that shit." I was so outraged that she actually believes that Freudian stuff.

Erica was very nice and tolerant and patient. She took it as a serious point that I had made. She could very easily have taken it as an insult because I think that's how it was intended. I'm probably one of the most intolerant people I know and there are certain things I can't stand. I should not have treated her that way in public.

I don't think I'll go on knowing her. It's just that we don't have enough in common to keep the bond alive. !

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