SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In 1973, a first novel came out that impressed critics, shocked readers and gave the world a phrase that we can't broadcast without bleeping it. It was a book about sex and sexuality, gender differences and freedom. And the author was a woman - Erica Jong. "Fear of Flying," is 40 this year. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg observes the anniversary. A note: the following interview is completely unsuitable for children.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: In 1973, the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam, a Broadway theater ticket cost $9, the Supreme Court ruled that first-trimester abortions were legal and the heroine of "Fear of Flying" fantasized about the, well, we can't say it on a family program, so I will say zipless intercourse. No, that's silly. She fantasized about a zipless (bleep). Author Erica Jong's definition:
ERICA JONG: The zipless (bleep) was more than a (bleep). 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.
STAMBERG: I love those bleeps. Now, here's how the book was introduced on National Public Radio's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in 1973.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ms. Jong is one of the first of a new breed of women novelists who can be as coarse as a situation demands while still retaining sensitivity and the kind of tenderness that have marked women's novels of the past.
STAMBERG: Erica Jong, you were so new, we didn't know how to pronounce your name.
JONG: Right. Ms. Yong.
STAMBERG: Yes, ma'am. So, Ms. Yong, you were writing about women and sex, and you were a pioneer. You told the world that women like sex and have sexual desires. This was a revelation.
JONG: It's very strange that it was a revelation, because the population of the world has been growing for centuries. Women do like sex, and they do fantasize about sex.
STAMBERG: Well, let's go back to the '70s, those dark days, and just talk about what was expected of most women then in the early '70s.
JONG: Well, you were supposed to get married, have children, take care of a husband; and that was why there was an epidemic of mad housewife novels in which a woman woke up and discovered actually her sworn enemy was her cranky husband who had made her into a slavey. And I truly hated those mad housewife novels. Hate, hate, hated them - because they were blaming men for something that was not literally men's fault. I mean, we were in a terrible predicament as a society but it was not the fault of individual men or women. We were stuck in certain roles.
STAMBERG: Well, how was it that your heroine, Isadora Wing, aka you, because you've said that that novel's mostly autobiographical - how did she - you - get so sexually free so early? Because women, those of us who were raised in the '50s and came of age in the '70s, we were all virgins, remember, until we got married - or at least we said we were or we were expected to be.
JONG: Well, I married the man who I lost my virginity with. But I have to say that I grew up in a very hip family. My parents were very sexual, and there was absolutely no question in the household I grew up in that sex was fun.
STAMBERG: Oh, my goodness. This is so radical then.
JONG: My parents were crazy about each other. You know, hippies were not invented in 1969.
STAMBERG: Yeah, so it was all normal, sort of, for you to take pen in hand and sit down and write "Fear of Flying." But, you know, to much of the world at the time, it took a lot of nerve to write it because it was seen as being kind of a female "Portnoy's Complaint," that great, raunchy Philip Roth novel that took the world by storm in 1969. But here you were a girl.
JONG: When I read these books, I thought, but where are we? Why are we not writing about our feelings? I thought it was time to claim that territory for women. And I was scared to death writing the book. Scared to death, but also laughing hysterically and having a ball.
STAMBERG: What was the effect of this novel on men, male readers?
JONG: In the beginning, they were very threatened. Over the 40 years, I've heard all kinds of things about the book. One man said to me: Whenever I saw that book on a woman's night table, I knew I was going to get lucky.
STAMBERG: Right. A friend of mine, male, who suggested I pose that question to you, had exactly that reaction.
JONG: And then women would say things like, that book - they always call it "that book." I have written many other books but they say "that book." I was backpacking in Greece and there was this Greek boy and he had these huge brown eyes and they looked like olives in olive oil. And he had this wild, brown hair around his face. And I had that book in my backpack and I had been reading it all across Europe with my Eurail pass. And, well, Erica, thank you.
STAMBERG: I bet she had a zipless bleep.
JONG: So, it's a very diverse reaction.
STAMBERG: Yeah. I wonder how you would write this story today.
JONG: I doubt that I would write this story today, of Isadora. I mean, the arc of the book is a picaresque journey; a woman going, leaving her husband and taking off with a very sexy British psychoanalyst, and they're traveling across Europe. They're on an existential journey. And I think that, in my 20s and early 30s, an existential journey appealed to me. It was a way of solving my problems and learning about myself. I don't have that illusion, or delusion, anymore. First of all, I don't believe that the zipless bleep actually exists. I think that, for the most part, we tend to be more sexual with somebody we feel comfortable with. Occasionally, you might fall into bed with a total stranger, and it is a beautiful fantasy. But for the most part, when you fall into bed with a total stranger, it's a great disappointment.
STAMBERG: But look at what people are writing these days - this "Fifty Shades of Gray," about S&M. There's all kinds of cable sex reality shows.
JONG: But if you look at "Fifty Shades of Gray," it's a very, very retrograde book, because if you're tied up and aroused, what are you really doing? You're giving up all responsibility for your sexuality. So, you cannot be a bad girl, because you're tied up. And I think that...
STAMBERG: You can just be a victim.
JONG: You can be a victim.
STAMBERG: Has, these days, now, in this 21st century, the romance gone out of the zipless (bleep)?
JONG: No. I mean, I think that women today, particularly in universities and so on, are doing hook-ups. The hook-up is a zipless bleep. But I don't think that they're getting much joy out of it. I mean, if you look at "Girls," Lena Dunham's program, which in many ways is very dark, these girls are not getting any pleasure. They're watching the men get pleasure. And so if hook-ups are so wonderful, why are these shows so dark and disappointing?
STAMBERG: Erica Jong, still with sex on her mind. Her novel, "Fear of Flying," was published 40 years ago this year. Thank you so much.
JONG: You're so welcome.
STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "I FEEL LOVE")
DONNA SUMMER: (Singing) Ooh, it's so good, it's so good, it's so good, it's so good, it's so good.
SIMON: You know, I've got to catch my breath. Mrs. Stamberg, did you count the bleeps in there? This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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