Erica Jong: Literature’s sexual rebels

(Photo: Erica Jong)

(Photo: Erica Jong)

There have always been sexual rebels.

In the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley, were fiercely rebellious about sexuality. They also were great feminists. In the 20th century, Emma Goldman spoke for women who believed love should be free.

Our age tends to divide things by decades and generalise about them. So, it’s assumed that the 70s and the second wave of feminism introduced sexual freedom to women. This is absolutely not true. If you read The Group by Mary McCarthy (1963), Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934), or Ulysses by James Joyce (1922), you see that sexual rebels have always been with us.

What was different about [my 1973 novel] Fear of Flying was that it was a book that tried to reveal how women thought about sex in an age when most books about women didn’t show this. So, when the book came out both women and men were shocked. Some said: “Women don’t think like this!” and some said: “Thank God, somebody is talking about how women really think!” What was fascinating to me as an author was how contradictory the responses were.

I always wanted to write the books for women that did not exist. There is a huge gap between what we write about and what we think about. I wanted to rip the top of the head off a lusty woman and expose her fantasies to the light. Fantasies are important but they don’t necessarily have to become realities. The zipless fuck was a fantasy of perfect idealized sex with a stranger, but it is often impossible to fulfill. Many readers missed that.

Now I see woman writers writing about bondage and discipline, cruelty and submission, and I wonder whether that is fantasy too. I’ve never been much interested in submission, so I read these books as fairytale fantasies for women.

I think it’s important not to take literature literally. We turn to writers to document our dream lives. We turn to writers to show us what we are afraid to show ourselves. Many writers who become known for sexuality are not that different from you and me. They have a need to reveal the unconscious mind. If we take them literally, we miss the point.

The big change in sexual writing happened in the 1960’s when books like Lolita and Tropic of Cancer were liberated by the courts. The change in literature emerged from the change in the law. Male writers got very excited and produced books like John Updike’s Couples (1968) and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Suddenly it was possible to publish these very honest works. I wanted to show honesty from a woman’s point of view. I was not advocating a kind of behavior, but many people did not understand that.

In Fear of Dying, I have also been attempting to reveal something unrevealed before. An editor once told me there had never been a bestseller about a woman over 40. But as I watched women growing older, still feeling sexy, looking for a way to overcome mortality, I realised that we needed new books that showed how women had changed.

Like Fear of Flying, Fear of Dying is such a book.

Erica Jong is a novelist whose works include Fear of Flying and the newly-published Fear of Dying. (Her books are available on Amazon, iTunes, Waterstones or your local independent bookshop.)

This article was originally published on and is reposted here with permission.

Summer 1995 cover

Erica Jong wrote for the summer 1995 issue of Index on Censorship magazine. Subscribe to the magazine.

From the summer 1995 Index on Censorship magazine

Deliberately lewd

Erica Jong explains why pornography is to art as prudery is to the censors

Pornographic material has been present in the art and literature of every society in every historical period. What has changed from epoch to epoch – or even from one decade to another – is the ability of such material to flourish publicly and to be distributed legally. After nearly 100 years of agitating for freedom to publish, we find that the enemies of freedom have multiplied, rather than diminished.

Read the full article

Deliberately lewd: Erica Jong

This article is part of the summer 1995 issue of the global quarterly Index on Censorship magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

This article is part of the summer 1995 issue of the global quarterly Index on Censorship magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

In conjunction with the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2015, we will be publishing a series of articles that complement many of the upcoming debates and discussions. We are offering these articles from Index on Censorship magazine for free (normally they are held within our paid-for archive) as part of our partnership with the festival. Below is an article by author Erica Jong, on pornographic material in art and literature, taken from our summer 1995 issue. It’s a great starting point for those who plan to attend The body politic: censorship and the female body session at the festival this year.

Index on Censorship is a global quarterly magazine with reporters and contributing editors around the world. Founded in 1972, it promotes and defends the right to freedom of expression. 

Pornographic material has been present in the art and literature of every society in every historical period. What has changed from epoch to epoch – or even from one decade to another – is the ability of such material to flourish publicly and to be distributed legally.

After nearly 100 years of agitating for freedom to publish, we find that the enemies of freedom have multiplied, rather than diminished. They are Christians, Muslims, oppressive totalitarian regimes, even well- meaning social libertarians who happen to be feminists, teachers, school boards, librarians. This should not surprise us since, as Margaret Mead pointed out 40 years ago, the demand for state censorship is usually ‘a response to the presence within the society of heterogeneous groups of people with differing standards and aspirations.’ As our culture becomes more diverse, we can expect more calls for censorship rather than fewer.

Mark Twain’s notorious 1601 ... Conversation As It Was By The Social Fireside, In The Time of The Tudors fascinates me because it demonstrates Mark Twain’s passion for linguistic experiment and how allied it is with his compulsion toward ‘deliberate lewdness’.

The phrase ‘deliberate lewdness’ is Vladimir Nabokov’s. In a witty afterword to his ground-breaking 1955 novel Lolita, he links the urge to create pornography with ‘the verve of a fine poet in a wanton mood’ and regrets that ‘in modern times the term “pornography” connotes mediocrity, commercialism and certain strict rules of narration.’ In contemporary porn, Nabokov says, ‘action has to be limited to the copulation of cliches.’ Poetry is always out of the question . ‘Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust.’

Free thinking: Reading list for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2015

Free Thinking! A unique partnership in 2015, Cambridge Festival of Ideas are working with Index on Censorship to offer in-depth articles and follow-up pieces from leading artists, writers and activists on all of our headline events.

Drawing out the dark side: Martin Rowson

Thoughts policed: Max Wind-Cowie

Deliberately lewd: Erica Jong

My book and the school library: Norma Klein

Future imperfect: Jason DaPonte

The politics of terror: Conor Gearty

Moving towards inequality: Jemimah Steinfeld and Hannah Leung

Escape from Eritrea: Ismail Einashe

Defending the right to be offended: Samira Ahmed

How technology is helping African journalists investigate: Raymond Joseph

24 Oct: Can writers and artists ever be terrorists?

25 Oct: Question Everything – Cambridge Festival of Ideas

Full Free Thinking! reading list

Current issue: Spies, secrets and lies

In the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine Spies, secrets and lies: How yesterday’s and today’s censors compare, we look at nations around the world, from South Korea to Argentina, and discuss if the worst excesses of censorship have passed or whether new techniques and technology make it even more difficult for the public to attain information. Subscribe to the magazine.

In choosing to write from the point of view of ‘the Pepys of that day, the same being cup-bearer to Queen Elizabeth’ in 1601, Mark Twain was transporting himself to a world that existed before the invention of sexual hypocrisy. The Elizabethans were openly bawdy. They found bodily functions funny and sex arousing to the muse. Restoration wits and Augustan satirists had the same openness to bodily functions and the same respect for Eros. Only in the nineteenth century did prudery (and the threat of legal censure) begin to paralyse the author‘s hand. Shakespeare, Rochester and Pope were far more fettered politically than we are, but the fact was that they were not required to put condoms on their pens when the matter of sex arose. They were pleased to remind their readers of the essential messiness of the body. They followed a classical tradition that often expressed moral indignation through scatology, ‘Oh Celia, Celia, Celia shits,’ writes Swift, as if she were the first woman in history to do so. In his so-called ‘unprintable poems’, Swift is debunking the conventions of courtly love – as well as expressing his own deep misogyny – but he is doing so in a spirit that Catullus and juvenal would have recognised. The satirist lashes the world to bring the world to its senses. It does the dance of the satyrs around our follies.

Twain’s scatology serves this purpose as well, but it is also a warm-up for his creative process, a sort of pump-priming. Stuck in the prudish nineteenth century, Mark Twain craved the freedom of the ancients. In championing ‘deliberate lewdness’ in 1601, he bestowed the gift of freedom on himself.

Even more interesting is the fact that Mark Twain was writing 1601 during the very same summer (1876) that he was ‘tearing along on a new book’ – the first 16 chapters of a novel he then referred to as ‘Huck Finn’s autobiograph’. This conjunction is hardly coincidental. 1601 and Huckleberry Finn have a great deal in common besides linguistic experimentation. According to Justin Kaplan, ‘both were implicit rejections of the taboos and codes of polite society and both were experiments in using the vernacular as a literary medium.’

In order to find the true voice of a book, the author must be free to play without fear of reprisals. All writing blocks come from excessive self-judgement, the internalised voice of the critical parent telling the author’s imagination that it is a dirty little boy or girl. ‘Hah!’ says the author, ‘I will flaun t the voice of parental propriety and break free!’ This is why pornographic spirit is always related to unhampered creativity. Artists are fascinated with filth because we know that in it everything human is born. Human beings emerge between piss and shit and so do novels and poems. Only by letting go of the inhibition that makes us bow to social propriety can we delve into the depths of the unconscious. We assert our freedom with pornographic play. If we are lucky, we keep that freedom long enough to create a masterpiece like Huckleberry Finn.

But the two compulsions are more than just related; they are causally intertwined.

When Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885, Louisa May Alcott put her finger on exactly what mattered about the novel even as she condemned it: ‘If Mr Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure- minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them.’ What Alcott didn’t know was that ‘our pure-minded lads and lasses’ aren’t. But Mark Twain knew. It is not at all surprising that during that summer of high scatological spirits Twain should also give birth to the irreverent voice of Huck. If Little Women fails to go as deep as Twain’s masterpiece, it is precisely because of Alcott’s concern with pure mindedness. Niceness is ever the enemy of art. If you worry about what the neighbours, critics, parents and supposedly pure-minded censors think, you will never create a work that defies the restrictions of the conscious mind and delves into the world o f dreams.

The artist needs pornography as a way into the unconscious and history proves that if this licence is not granted, it will be stolen. Mark Twain had 1601 privately printed. Picasso kept pornographic notebooks that were only exhibited after his death.

1601 is deliberately lewd. It delights in stinking up the air of propriety. It delights in describing great thundergusts of farts which make great stenches and pricks which are stiff until cunts ‘take ye stiffness out of them’. In the midst of all this ribaldry, the assembled company speaks of many things – poetry, theatre, art, politics. Twain knew that the muse flies on the wings of flatus, and he was having such a good time writing this Elizabethan pastiche that the humour shines through a hundred years and twenty later. I dare you to read 1601 without giggling and guffawing.

Erica Jong became internationally famous in 1973-4 with the publication of her novel Fear of Flying, which sold over 10 million copies worldwide. She has also written several collections of poetry and six further novels, most recently Any Woman’s Blues

Excerpted from a paper delivered at a conference on Expression, Offence and Censorship, organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research in June 1995. A full report of the conference, including contributions from Bernard Williams, Michael Grade, Clare Short MP and Chris Smith MP will be published shortly. Details from IPPR, 30-32 Southampton Street, London WC2E 7RA, UK

© Erica Jong and Index on Censorship

Join us on 25 October at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2015 for Question Everything an unconventional, unwieldy and disruptive day of talks, art and ideas featuring a broad range of speakers drawn from popular culture, the arts and academia. Moderated by Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg. 

This article is part of the summer 1995 issue of the global quarterly Index on Censorship magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

The body politic

[vc_row equal_height=”yes” el_class=”text_white” css=”.vc_custom_1474815446506{margin-top: 30px !important;margin-right: 0px !important;margin-bottom: 30px !important;margin-left: 0px !important;background-color: #455560 !important;}”][vc_column width=”1/2″ css=”.vc_custom_1478505578743{padding-top: 60px !important;padding-bottom: 60px !important;background: #455560 url( !important;background-position: center !important;background-repeat: no-repeat !important;background-size: cover !important;}”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″ css=”.vc_custom_1474721694680{margin-top: 0px !important;margin-bottom: 0px !important;padding-top: 0px !important;padding-bottom: 0px !important;}”][vc_custom_heading text=”SUBSCRIBE TO
INDEX ON CENSORSHIP MAGAZINE” font_container=”tag:h2|font_size:24|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_column_text 0=””]Every subscription helps Index’s work around the world