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Erica Jong

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The hardest part in writing about Erica Jong is to not make it all about sex.

As the woman who coined the legendary term ‘zipless fuck’ to describe the ideal sexual experience, she has talked, written, described, been interviewed and lectured on the subject for decades.

And yet sex, while being at the core of most of Jong’s writing, is almost incidental to what makes her one of the world’s most iconic writers. It’s not the sex itself but the fact that she quietly flouted the unspoken norms of the day to talk about it unblinkingly – neither voyeur, nor prude – that made her a pillar of the sexual revolution and a hero to millions, as well as gaining her the admiration of writers like John Updike and Henry Miller.

Fear of Flying, her first and most famous novel published in 1973, blew conventional thinking about women, marriage and sexuality out of the water and went on to sell 20 million copies. In many ways it articulated what women thought but which, through decades of silent complicity with the status quo, was never voiced. In Isadora Wing, her fictional doppelganger, Erica created everywoman – not as she existed in public life in the 70s, but inside a woman’s own mind.

The fact that Erica so evidently lives by the liberal mores she advocates has only served to make her more compelling. She’s been married four times – and laughingly points out she’s her husband’s fourth wife as well. She has openly talked of experimenting with her sexuality, including with women. She was an ardent admirer of Henry Miller – himself often branded more pornographic than literary – and formed a close relationship of mutual trust and admiration with him. She’s blurred the lines between fiction and autobiography by admitting that elements of her life, from her eccentric upbringing to her flawed marriages, resonate in her fiction.

In the four decades since Fear of Flying, she’s written over 20 books, including 10 works of fiction as well as celebrated non-fiction volumes such as What Do Women Want, Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life, and, in 2011, an anthology on – well, sex – called Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex that she edited. Intriguingly, she has switched between fiction, non-fiction and poetry almost effortlessly, becoming one of the most evocative poets of her generation with 7 published volumes, and winning Poetry magazine’s respected Bess Hokin Prize. She also won a host of key literary prizes, including the United Nations’ Award for Excellence in Literature, the Sigmund Freud Award for Literature and the Deauville Award for Literary Excellence in France.

She’s spoken openly of her demons with writing and fear of being unsuccessful, despite the fact that her first book became a phenomenon. Despite the chronic self-doubt, though, she went on to be not just a prolific writer but an astoundingly good one – wit, literary allusions, clear thinking, tremendous insight and sharp writing make her a compelling read.

But the true star of Erica’s writing is courage. She’s dared to examine under a public microscope her most intimate relationships – with her fiery mother who raged with anger at having to sacrifice a painting career to look after family; with her four husbands who included a writer, a psychologist and her current husband of 23 years, a divorce lawyer; and with her daughter, writer and satirist Molly Jong-Fast, who describes herself as the antithesis of everything Erica is: a prude to Erica’s liberal, a fiercely involved and protective parent to Erica’s hands-off one, a dedicated wife to Erica’s serial ‘marrier’.

Yet, vindication of Erica’s way lies ultimately in the very rejection of her life choices by her daughter – a circumstance that, unexpectedly, makes her proud and reinforces to her the true meaning of feminism. In an interview to the Guardian last year, she commented that Molly has ”taken on things I never did. I had one child, she has three. She’s brave. And she must feel very loved, because otherwise how could she satirise me? She knows I’ll never take umbrage. I give her permission to be whatever she wants to be.”

There’s no greater salute to feminism than that.

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