Erica Jong is an American novelist and poet, best known for her highly influential feminist novel Fear of Flying (1973). She is also well known and respected as a commentator on women’s issues.
FS In South Africa, the diversification of our literature into genres is in its infancy. During apartheid, the freedom struggle was so overwhelming that there was little inclination to produce literature purely for entertainment. But now that we are 17 years into democracy, there has been an explosion of new writing in different genres. South African women writers in particular are starting to inherit some of the prejudices that their overseas counterparts have long been familiar with. Has the situation changed at all since you wrote in 2007 that “critics have trouble taking fiction by women seriously”? [Ghetto (not) Fabulous, Huffington Post 2007]
EJ Originally written for Publishers Weekly, my essay called Ghetto (not) Fabulous is unfortunately NOT dated. Books by men and women who kowtow to male literary values still get more attention than books that reveal where women really are today. We have experienced a major backlash against feminism due to generational changes, the rise of the tea party and shockingly reactionary republicanism. Women are still less than equal in our world and our literary world yet it is not popular to say so. The daughters of second wave mothers are deeply into motherhood, men and materialism. Of course all women go through periods of rebellion against our mothers ‒ but in the USA it has become extreme. Feminism is the word that dare not speak its name, alas.
FS V.S. Naipaul stunned the literary world earlier this year when he described writing by women as “sentimental” and asserted that no woman writer, living or dead, was his equal. He also claimed to be able to tell within a couple of paragraphs whether something had been written by a woman or not. Do you think this is an idiosyncratic point of view that can safely be disregarded, or is he giving voice to a prejudice that many writers and critics share, but aren’t necessarily prepared to say out loud?
EJ Naipaul is a grumpy old man who is irresponsible about his many literary awards. How can anyone lump Sappho, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Margaret Mead, Fay Weldon, Nadine Gordimer and Toni Morrison into one gooey mess? One wonders why Naipaul is still so unhappy? Is he jealous of the money some pop women writers ‒ like Danielle Steele ‒ earn? Or does he simply hate his wife? It certainly puzzles people of good will. Negativism and revenge belie a stunted spirit. I do not believe a writer can achieve greatness without humanity and humility ‒ however buried in his literary passions.
FS The ongoing spat between women writers of literary fiction and those of commercial fiction has crept onto the South African literary scene, with so-called chick-lit writers being called upon to defend what they do. Do you have any strong feelings on whether women writers should be concentrating their energies in a literary or a commercial direction? Does so-called chick-lit retard the cause of women’s liberation with its emphasis on the private rather than the public sphere?
EJ History alone decides who is literary and who commercial. We can never judge our own contemporaries.
FS With women’s fiction already under siege from the likes of V.S. Naipaul ‒ and with novels by women not being granted anything like 50% of review coverage in the media ‒ some would argue that women writers ought to put their differences aside and pull together to promote all literature by women. Would you support this, or do you think that this risks harming robust critical debate between women writers?
EJ This is the same question as Do quotas work? They are indeed unfair, but at times they are the only option. I believe we must all write honestly about our peers, but without rancour. The literary world is very unfair to writers. Some starve, some get rich and some merely struggle. But kindness is the highest wisdom says the Torah. We must be fair but kind in approaching the works of other writers. Writing a book, even a disappointing book, is a huge undertaking.
FS The news that a woman has been appointed editor of The New York Times has been greeted with cautious optimism in literary circles. Can we reasonably hope that more books by women may find their way into the review pages, with possibly a trickle-down effect into other publications? Or is the problem too endemic for a quick-fix solution?
EJ Women rarely risk their necks to support other women, alas. And The New York Times, though better than in the past, has never espoused revolutionary values. Besides, she is only managing editor, not the publisher. We still have miles to go before we sleep.
FS And finally, could you tell us what you are working on at the moment? When can the world look forward to another Erica Jong novel?
EJ Working on a novel about getting older ‒ not senilita, but circling 60 and 70. Also working on a book about women wanting ‒ non-fiction like Simone de Beauvoir brought up to date. Continue to write poetry when the muse alights!