You have written the female version of Tropic of Cancer,” gushed that grand dirty old man of American letters, Henry Miller, in a fan letter to Erica Jong about her bawdy first novel, Fear of Flying. In reply the flattered Erica reported that a British critic had called her “a mammouth pudenda.”
Indeed when Erica’s protagonist Isadora Zelda unzipped her most private self, her steamy frankness brought instant response: both liberated and would-be liberated female readers telephoned the author to confess their solidarity or to ask advice. Erica got a $15,000 advance against hardcover sales (50,000 copies have sold since the October 1973 publication) and another $130,000 advance for the paperback rights—there will be two million copies in print by Christmas. She is to receive $40,000 for motion picture rights and a draft screenplay. On the strength of all that, Fear of Flying has made Erica Jong the feminist movement’s author of the year.
Erica’s “mock memoir” chronicles the sexual and psychological misadventures on two continents of a New York “Jewish Princess” who has been treated by “at least six shrinks,” is married to a seventh and is having an affair with an eighth.
The 32-year-old author and her heroine share similar attributes: each lives on Manhattan’s West Side, is married to a Chinese psychiatrist and had a first husband—a college sweetheart—who went insane. And each has a sister who is married to an Arab.
Although Erica already enjoyed a modest reputation for two volumes of mildly erotic poetry—Half-Lives and Fruits & Vegetables—she says that she was “scared about speaking so frankly about sex” when she began her novel. She needn’t have been. Hurrahed John Updike in his review: “a notably luxuriant and glowing bloom in the sometimes thistly garden of ‘raised’ feminine consciousness.”
Earthier than Updike, Erica shrugs off the headlong success of Fear of Flying: “It was my apprenticeship—where I got my rocks off.” She is busy on her next novel, while another volume of poetry, Loveroots, will soon be a Book of the Month Club selection.