This article was originally published in 2016. It has been edited for clarity.
For many years after I wrote Fear of Flying, I was unable to re-read it. I had worked so hard writing it and promoting it that I was tapped out. One tends to see all the flaws in one’s writing as soon as they appear on a printed page. But as time has gone by, I have marveled over the response readers have had to this novel all over the world — finding themselves in it. I read a line or two and am knocked out by how much I seemed to know about people when I was very young. Where did that come from?
The reality is that both a book’s flaws and its truth come from a place we don’t know. So much is buried in the unconscious of the author. One hesitates to take credit for anything. Perhaps this is just superstition or the writer’s understanding that she doesn’t control the universe. I’ve always believed that only humility makes it possible to find new things in your work. Every time I write a novel, I must find a new voice. Poetry is different. The voice comes without struggle. Maybe this is because nobody reads poetry so you know you will not be judged. Fear of being judged is the origin of all writer’s block. You have to get back to the original scribble — like fingerprints on the cave wall. You have to unlock your stubborn unconscious.
Visiting the Facebook headquarters in New York in order to meet my readers virtually was an amazing experience. We had just conducted a month-long campaign to re-read Fear of Flying and there were people actually typing in clever questions. And at the end of the Q&A, the Facebook team even offered me fresh juice from their on-campus juice bar. What an office!
My most inspiring interactions with books have usually come in deep solitude. I suddenly see on the page that I am not alone in understanding something. Inside, I rejoice. I believe that literature is there to make us feel less lonely in the human condition. And do we feel better because we can virtually interact? I don’t know. Sometimes I think that all these supposed friends are not friends at all. In fact, I once wrote a poem about it:
What is a Facebook friend?
Without smell, without taste,
Without smile, without guile.
Is a Friend a friend?
A friend needs.
Seeds you with hope.
Greets you with joy.
You are not a toy.
Not something to count.
A sacred fount.
A friend is proof
You are human.
A Facebook friend
Is another matter.
Proof you can type,
There is no shortcut to friendship. Books may begin a friendship but can they sustain it? A friend is someone who sits by your bedside when you are ill, who lends you money when you are broke, and who forgives you when you say something alienating. This does not happen on the internet. In fact, the internet seems like a device for people to jump down each other’s throats at the slightest provocation. Make a mistake and offend some group and you are dead meat. Watching the way friends are unfriended for having unfriendly opinions sets my teeth on edge. Where is forgiveness in this? One cannot express one’s whole personality in a tweet. And one certainly cannot tell the world one’s complex opinions in brief online ruminations. We are all better than that.
But I am deeply grateful for people’s responses — even those proffered to me through the internet — to Fear of Flying. Mystified but grateful. I hope above all that the book makes people forgive themselves for being human. In my view, literature is an olive branch, not a hatchet.
Before Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City, there was Isadora Wing, the uninhibited, outspoken protagonist of Erica Jong’s revolutionary novel. First published in 1973, Fear of Flying caused a national sensation, fueling fantasies, igniting debates about women and sex, and introducing a notorious phrase to the English language. Forty years later, Isadora’s honest and exuberant retelling of her sexual adventures — and misadventures — continues to provoke and inspire, and stands as an iconic tale of self-discovery, liberation, and womanhood.