June 2014 Book Club Selection: Fear of Flying, 2003, Signet Paperback Edition
Author/Editor: Erica Jong
Purchased: Strand Bookstore, NYC
Well, first off let me say that Fear of Flying is a lot less sex-filled than I thought it would be. Especially since every time my 62-year-old mother (who was, if you can do the math, therefore exactly the target audience for Jong’s 1973 novel) saw me reading it, she alternately laughed, sighed, or exclaimed, “Oh, ANN.” I mean, if that’s not Mom-code for, “what kind of smutty McSmut are you reading over there,” I don’t know what is!
See, I don’t normally read romance novels or erotica, but with all my friends delving into Fifty Shades, I was hoping to find a more realistic, feminist (not to mention actually well-written) erotic novel to recommend as an alternative. Fear of Flying is that book and it isn’t.
Jong herself is vocally anti-Shades:
“The problem with Shades of Grey is that it is just bad writing. That and the fact the heroine is subservient allowing her body to be abused in order to ‘get her man.’ Is this what we’ve come to?”
“I mean, it’s absolutely a mess of bad writing, but beyond that, it’s a very old-fashioned book. Anastasia is courted by a rich older man. He asks her to be his personal slave. He asks her to sign a contract. He starts giving her things. A laptop, which she can’t afford; she’s a poor student. A car, which she can’t afford. You start to get the notion that it’s about women having sex for money.”
“And the other thing about bondage — and I have never been into B&D — but you really have to ask what it’s about. And it’s about not taking responsibility for your pleasure, because if you’re bound and gagged and tied to the bedpost and you have an orgasm, you can claim you never really wanted it. You were forced into it. And I think that’s a very retro notion.”
The idea that Fifty Shades is poorly written is run-of-the-mill criticism of the bestselling book, which has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Much more controversial is Jong’s viewpoints towards the BDSM lifestyle as a whole (which, to be fair, is extremely inaccurately portrayed in Fifty Shades).
The debate over whether a feminist can also be a sexual submissive has been raging for decades (the Bitch magazine column series, “Thinking Kink,” that the link above leads to is a great jumping off point to start to understand that massive topic).
My personal opinion in this debate is in constant flux — I can see the merit on both sides, but in general, my philosophy runs to the ‘your kink is not my kink’ and ‘consent is king’ when it comes to judging (or not-judging, more accurately) sexual preferences. Isadora’s sexual preferences expressed in Jong’s Fear of Flying, most famously the “zipless fuck,” certainly aren’t my fantasies, but I admire the novel for its bravery in discussing sex so brazenly at a time when women were being encouraged to lie back and think of Uncle Sam rather than to chase after their own sexual pleasure, wherever that may lie.
But, no, if you’re out for mile-a-minute sex scenes, Jong isn’t your author. Instead, you’re rewarded with a fictional journey through the major points of feminist sexual philosophy. And that is definitely worth a read. I’m sincerely disappointed by the rumors of a movie adaptation that, even from the way Fear of Flying‘s plot is summarized, seem to indicate that the movie will be more titillating than thought-provoking . . . a great disservice to the source material.
If you are, however, looking for something more lurid after finishing Fear of Flying, pick up The Story of O, the 1954 novel that is arguably a much more graphic precursor to any BDSM-centered book like Fifty Shades. And, if you must, pick up Fifty Shades as well. Read them all. And read them proudly — not hidden on an eReader, but loud and present on the subway and on your nightstand.
That kind of unapologetic pride in one’s own sexuality — wherever it may fall on the ‘vanilla’-BDSM, polyamorous-monogamous, heterosexual-queer spectrums — is truly something that any feminist can celebrate.
That’s it for “Half-Way’s” Feminist Book Club this month. Any suggestions for future book club selections? Send them along!