A pen pal of mine in a nearby state recently published her first novel and was surprised when it was referred to under the heading of women’s fiction. She had never placed herself in any category, and wondered what the term meant. Did it imply some limit to her writing? Did it refer to specific subject matter, or just any fiction by a woman? Could a woman not write a women’s novel? she wondered. Could a man write one?

What we decided through the exchange of several letters was that the term had once been derogatory, used mostly by male reviewers, but had since been adopted by the oppressed class as a matter of pride. People who use the term usually do have some subject matter in mind, though it is no easy thing to pin them down on it. One can imagine someone sitting down to write a women’s novel the way people apparently write young adult novels, or fantasy novels (though I have always felt that first-rate writers avoid all categories; categories imply concession). A major factor is that many critics, and all publishers, adore labels, which relieve them of having to speak clearly, or to think. My friend and I decided that the term woman writer is probably a compliment when used by a woman, but might conceal a sneer if it is used by a man.

The subject comes up because I have just finished a book by my favorite woman writer, but can imagine a chorus of protests as I announce this choice. “She’s not a woman writer,” I can hear people saying. “She. . . . ”(A vague sputtering here. The words that almost emerged were “writes like a man.”) “She only writes about one thing. We know why you like her writing.”

The same protests were voiced — even louder — at the publication of her first novel, Fear of Flying.

Erica Jong emerged on the literary scene in 1973 as a messy problem, as if a sensitive artist had begun to behave outrageously in public. She had started out as a poet, acquired the small reputation that poets have. Her first novel had a stunning impact. It was written with the abandon of a poet gone mad. It moved at a breathless pace, its metaphors startling and slangy. It was not all that sexually explicit — I have known people to pick it up on its reputation and be disappointed — but it had a constant sexual undercurrent. Its protagonist, Isadora Wing, had sex on the brain. Furthermore, she thought about sex in a way that, in books up to then, only men had. She admired men’s tight pants from behind, looked for suspicious bulges when they turned around, and if she liked what she saw she “creamed” her “jeans.” The early Isadora was somewhat inhibited in her behavior, but not in what she said. If she could think it she could say it, with a vividness that stuck in your mind like a dart.

Male reviewers — picture an uptight bespectacled man who haunts the library stacks (sounds like me) — didn’t know what to make of this person. They didn’t like the idea that they were being thought of in this way. They didn’t want their pants inspected for bulges. Many reacted violently. They called Fear of Flying a dirty book. At least one column I saw attacked it as being sloppy in syntax and poorly written (exactly the reaction of a grammarian who wants to keep all his buttons buttoned). Paul Theroux — to his eternal discredit, in my opinion — called it a “crappy” novel, and referred to its heroine as a “mammoth pudenda.”

Jong’s readers, however, loved it, and bought it — literally — by the millions. A novel that even its author had thought of as a personal private fantasy struck a chord with countless women. Many wrote to tell her she had expressed their feelings exactly. They had been feeling that way, but no one had had the nerve to say so.

My own guess is that male reviewers objected to the book not because it was sexual, not because it treated men as sex objects, but because they found something objectionable in Jong’s tone. Men were accustomed to women’s fiction; they might even grudgingly — if very slowly — allow it a significant place in world literature, but now (they had known this would happen!) a woman had stepped out of her niche altogether. She was an upstart. She was an uppity woman. She didn’t know her place.

I therefore felt that the one characterization of Jong that made sense (though I couldn’t help thinking it had been stumbled upon by accident) was when she was called a female Henry Miller. Miller, too, had written early novels that had been sexually notorious but not especially explicit. They had the same sexual undercurrent as Jong’s, the same colossal nerve, the same verve and gusto, the willingness to say anything, the same kind of egotistical monologist as a narrator. As Jong was an upstart from her gender, Miller had been one from the gutter. This isn’t literature! the critics shouted. Get back in your hole!

Jong’s Isadora Wing fiction (she has written one non-Isadora novel, and published eleven books in all) famously follows the outlines of her own life, but the question of whether or not it is autobiographical — though certainly interesting — is beside the point. The vital fact is that she deals directly and openly with the most important personal issues of her day. The action in her novels partakes of jet-set glamor (by the time of How to Save Your Own Life Isadora is an enormously successful author, and even Fear of Flying opens at a convention of psychoanalysts in Vienna), but the emotions she faces are those everyone feels. Her fiction manages to be domestic and glamorous at once. It lives out our wildest fantasies and treats our common concerns.

Fear of Flying, for all its verbal daring, was not terribly daring in what it described. It focused on that moment in a woman’s life when she feels an overwhelming need to escape, but though Isadora did run from her husband and have an illicit interlude, the end of the novel found her back in his hotel room in a warm bath, having escaped only the fear that was driving her. By the beginning of How to Save Your Own Life she has gotten out of both the bathtub and the marriage. She has also become a best-selling author (her novel in its fictional guise was entitled Candida Confesses). How to Save describes a period of confusion in Isadora’s life; she has entered a new landscape and recognizes nothing. It is less satisfying than Flying as a novel but perhaps more satisfying as a piece of writing; Isadora has lost some of her breathy exuberance and seems more human. Toward the end of the novel, at the height of her confusion, she stumbles into an orgy, and what follows is perhaps my favorite scene in all of Jong’s fiction, one in which a therapist — also fresh from the orgy — listens to a catalogue of her woes and speaks, briefly, with the voice of sweet reason. How to Save ends when she takes up with a younger man named Josh, one who entered the battle of the sexes slightly later than her other men and who has ground rules that are somewhat more liberated. The novel ends with a series of love poems to him.

It is thus a little disconcerting to find out at the beginning of Parachutes and Kisses that Josh has also turned out to be a schmuck. Jong almost had me believing in romantic love — I was at least reserving judgment — but although Isadora and Josh had managed to stay together long enough to have a baby, they are now bitterly divided, largely because he is also a writer and resents her success. (There is an obvious moral here. Never marry another writer whose first novel sold six million copies.) As the novel opens she is living with her daughter in a huge house in the Connecticut countryside, with two complete writing studios in separate wings but only one writer to use them.

Parachutes and Kisses finally delivers on the early promise of its heroine. After mostly just talking about it for two novels, Isadora becomes wildly promiscuous, whipping around the New England countryside in a Mercedes with the license plate QUIM and diving into bed with almost anyone who asks (everyone asks). She is carrying on with “a drugged-out disc jockey . . . a cuddly Jewish banker . . . a blue-eyed Southern writer . . . a cute Swedish real-estate developer . . . a lapsed rabbi . . . an antiques dealer . . . a twenty-six-year-old medical student . . . a plastic surgeon . . . and so many others she’s practically lost track.” (Can’t blame her.) The sex she has with these people is described in some detail and at considerable length. Critics normally frown on such activity. (It was George Orwell who pointed out that Tropic of Cancer got few good notices because critics are afraid of being perceived as enjoying a dirty book.) I am not frowning. The sex is marvelously described, the scenes are often hilarious, and if a novelist of manners can use an encounter at a tea party to reveal character, I see no reason that an encounter in bed shouldn’t be even more revealing. If Erica Jong is a female Henry Miller, this book is her Sexus.

Though there is another subplot, about the death of Isadora’s grandfather and her search for her roots — she even travels to Russia — and though the novel eventually shows how unsatisfactory promiscuity is (no big news) and leads Isadora into the arms of yet another, even younger, true love, the real pleasure of any Jong novel is the insights that come up along the way and her felicity in expressing them. She once again confronts a host of issues that face her generation — the desire of women in their late thirties finally to have babies; her love for her daughter and the difficulties of raising her alone; a women’s essential rivalry (however much they both try to avoid it) with her husband; the perils of success; a woman’s need simultaneously to be loved and to be independent — and states her very personal feeling about them. There is never a trace of a tired opinion in the writing of Erica Jong.

It is a simple thing to criticize Jong and her fiction. She is a terrific egotist, often without seeming to know it. She goes off on tangents. She has a tendency in her late fiction to be self-pitying (it is hard to feel sorry for a millionaire author, even though that kind of success obviously has its problems). Her heroine kisses and tells, often rather nastily. She adores a man in one novel and can find nothing good to say about him in the next. Jong’s novels have all been open-ended, and often seem to be about nothing more specific than yet another chunk of Isadora’s life. Jong is vulnerable to criticism because of the life her heroine leads and because of the chances she takes in revealing herself. But she is unfailingly honest, nearly always interesting, and wildly entertaining. One can criticize her novels as novels while adoring them as books.

I have no idea whether or not Erica Jong qualifies as a woman writer. She writes of matters of the heart, though she does not limit herself to that organ. Her novels are domestic, but often about the bizarre domesticity of the Seventies and Eighties, when your lover has to leave before dawn so your daughter won’t wonder what he’s doing there. If she does not find a niche in the pantheon of woman writers, she will certainly find one in another group, of writers who are unabashedly egotistical and painfully honest, who find in an intricate examination of their own lives the lives of everyone, who seem almost to live their lives in order to write about them, to offer themselves as martyrs to art. Traditional female authors like Jane Austen and Barbara Pym may be turning in their graves at the thought of this woman writer, but the shade of Colette — as much a scandal in her own day as Erica Jong — is quietly smiling.

The Isadora Wing Novels
of Erica Jong

Fear of Flying Signet 311 pp.
How to Save Your Own Life Signet 310 pp.
Parachutes and Kisses NAL Books 405 pp. $16.95