Erica Jong is a legend: author, social critic, feminist, and general provocateuse. Her 1973 novel Fear of Flying was an epochal moment in American thinking about sex and freedom. Her career since has been defined by ceaseless activity and intellectual agility. We spoke with her about the 2016 election, the current political terrain, what millennial men and women need to learn, and her concerns for the future.
Octavian Report: You are, put bluntly, an icon of second-wave feminism — what’s your assessment of its successor movements?
Erica Jong: I wonder whether thinking of feminism in terms of waves is not self-defeating. Feminism has been a very long slog. It began with the Enlightenment, continued through the abolition movement in the 19th century, reached a peak with women getting the vote in the early 20th century and rose to prominence again in the 1960’s and 70’s. Following the Russian-rigged election of Donald Trump, the so-called POTUS, we are seeing a new surge of millennial feminism as young women realize we need the Equal Rights Amendment or we will never keep the gains we make.
OR: Do you have a strong view on millennial feminism?
Jong: Millennial feminism is important because women must realize that our gains — birth control, hegemony over our own bodies, political rights — can always be taken back unless it is embodied in the law. In order to be mothers and caregivers and also have successful careers, we need societal support such as parental leave, health care, and other changes which many industrialized countries have already made. Women in Denmark or Holland for example, already have health care, parental leave, and other necessary supports and yet they still realize that full equality is far away. Backward America refuses to give women the support we need. Backward America penalizes people who are poor or brown-skinned as if they were less than human.
Millennial feminists are at last beginning to understand the societal changes we need to make women’s lives more equal. But we still have a very long way to go.
OR: On intersectionality?
Jong: The word is too long. It’s not a friendly word. It’s also not a good slogan — too academic.
Obviously it’s harder to reach equality when you are discriminated against as a black woman. Obviously it’s harder to lead your life if you are disabled. Obviously it is harder to live your life if you are poor. But do we really need a complicated word to express that? Clearly, we need equality of sexual preference, equality of physical power, equality of human rights. Disabled people should not be mocked and should get the support they need to be full members of society. People of color should be full members of society. But the word “intersectionality,” with its academic overtones, probably scares people away more than it convinces them.
OR: What is your broader assessment of American politics, right and left?
Jong: I’ve always been a Democrat and an admirer of FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. But I do think that the Democrats are not doing the clever thing in terms of recruiting the next generation. If you give money to the Democrats, they besiege you with requests for more money. They are not as canny as the Republicans in using money to change hearts and minds.
We need institutes focusing on health care and education. We should be invading the universities with courses on medical care as a human right. We should be creating institutes that focus on human rights. Instead, our party is constantly saying, “More, more, more money,” and at the same time, criticizing the GOP for dark money. It seems illogical to me. If I were running the Democratic Party, I would be seeking to convince people of my ideas before hitting them up for money. Ideas are as powerful as donations. Donations follow ideas.
OR: What do you think the Right gets wrong about contemporary society?
Jong: American history shows us that every Republican administration of the 20th century was followed by a recession or a major depression. The right’s rejection of Keynesian economics, and their insistence that the rich will create “trickle down” effects that will make for more jobs is an absurdity. We have tested this theory many times and found that it leads only to a major recession. Greed will not save us. But enlightened opportunism may help society. We need to focus on innovation and giving back.
OR: What do you think the Left gets wrong?
Jong: The Left is too fixated on politics that may have worked in the 1930’s — we need a new economic enlightenment in which we recognize that taking care of the less fortunate helps them become consumers. We need more innovation in ideas, in fundraising, in creating new ways of doing things.
This means enlightened education. Republicans have fought to keep an uneducated electorate and its triumph is Donald Trump who claims to “love the uneducated.” Of course he loves them — he is perhaps the most uneducated person ever to come to political power. As long as we keep a large section of the population uninformed we will have uninformed leaders.
OR: What’s your take on the rise of identity politics to a national level of prominence?
Jong: I would rather focus on the needs of human beings than skin color, native languages, or other things that divide us. We are all human beings.
OR: What about the politics of sex? How has it changed since you’ve been observing it?
Jong: The younger generation has a totally different view of homosexuality and of transgender people than the one that was common when I was young. That seems very positive to me. Love is love and sexual choices should be entirely free as long as they don’t harm others.
Ironically, I was made into an icon of promiscuous sex when I published Fear of Flying. That now makes me laugh because I’ve never thought promiscuous sex was the best sex.
Many of us want to explore sexuality in our 20’s. For some people, it’s a necessary stage of development. Other people crave promiscuous sex. I think it should be possible to choose the mode of sexuality that suits you, as long as you are informed about sexually transmitted diseases and the dangers of meeting up with total strangers. I’m not drawn to Tinder but if you are, you should be able to use it without getting killed or diseased.
As a parent, I tried to give my daughter freedom from sexual guilt. Down the road she has chosen monogamy, as I did. But it was not forced upon her. For my grandchildren, I would hope for freedom from guilt but understanding of the risks of disease. They will have to balance those two things, as we all do. I would hope to be there for them as an advisor but not a dictator.
“The Left is too fixated on politics that may have worked in the 1930’s -- we need a new economic enlightenment.”—Erica Jong
OR: What social change would you most like to see in the next ten years?
Jong: Equal rights for women in every area; passage of the Equal Rights Amendment so we cannot be sent back to an Atwoodian dystopia. Women have been semi-slaves for too long. It’s clear that we are ready to be politicians, artists, authors, philosophers. Whatever holds us back should be smashed.
OR: Do you think it’s likely or unlikely?
Jong: I think it’s likely if millennial men come to understand that this will improve everyone’s life, that women’s freedom also makes men more free.
OR: What drives you to keep writing?
Jong: I have no idea. I know that I am not happy unless I am in the midst of a major writing project and I seem to have the need to go on creating poetry and fiction.
OR: Any future books planned (pardon us for asking)?
Jong: I’ve just finished a new collection of poems, tentatively titled The World Begins with Yes. I am working on a historical novel set in the French Revolution. I’m also in the midst of a book about writing blocks and other blocks. I have dozens of other projects in my notebooks — if the muse spares my life, I will write them all.
OR: Who are the writers and thinkers you are most interested in reading at the moment?
Jong: I hate that question because I read so widely that I always have a new favorite. Currently I adore the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector as a poet and fiction writer. I’m constantly discovering wonderful new writers.
OR: Do you find yourself more drawn to fiction or nonfiction?
Jong: I read widely — both fiction and non fiction, poetry and memoir. I think that the distinction between fiction and memoir has vanished and many interesting writers mingle poetry, fiction and memoir.
OR: Do writers and social critics have a special responsibility under Trump?
Jong: Our responsibility is to figure out how to get rid of him and prevent the triumph of the uneducated in the future.
OR: How does someone like Trump come to power in America?
Jong: Trump became President because of cyber interference by our enemies, by ignorance on the part of the electorate, by antiquated systems like the Electoral College, by gerrymandering to prevent black and Latino people from voting and by sophisticated cyber shenanigans unrecognized by most Americans — even politicians.
Trump’s margin of victory was actually tiny; 70,000 votes in the Rust Belt that may even be an aberration. Without the Electoral College, Hillary would be president. Clearly, we’re trapped by old laws and traditions that the right wing has used more skillfully than the left. Citizens United continues to play a huge part in our elections, as Jane Mayer has documented in Dark Money, a book everybody should read.
OR: Do his backers have any legitimate points?
Jong: His main backers are motivated by greed. They want power, no taxes and no rights for the poor, for women or for people of color. They no longer even pay lip service to human rights. They have no shame about making a war on women even though women are more than half the population. Women’s rights are human rights and never have we needed them more. Despite all the prejudice and hateful rhetoric, women of color are demonstrating a renaissance of political power. They see our political hypocrisy very clearly — perhaps even more clearly than white women do. This fascinates me. I think it’s possible that African Americans will save our republic. They are more aware than most whites of all the threats to freedom we face.
OR: What do you think are the most effective tools to criticize him and undercut his agenda?
Jong: The most effective tool is a long-range one — education. Sadly, fascism is fast and education slow. Our republic is in mortal danger of disappearing. Education can save it but we’d better act fast.
OR: What do you make of the reaction to Hilary Clinton?
Jong: The sheer misogyny against Hillary Clinton boggles the mind. Who knew that women were so hated until 2016?
OR: Are Trump and Sanders two sides of the same coin, or is that an overstatement?
Jong: They can’t be two sides of same coin because Trump is a total con-man and Bernie Sanders is an ideologue who wants human rights for all. Perhaps because he is a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, he exaggerates solutions but our country needs his ideas right now to combat the triumph of greed.
OR: What do you make of Trump’s Putin connections?
Jong: When Trump invited Russian politicians and so-called diplomats to the White House then barred the American press — he seemed to be wagging his tongue at our republic and saying, “fuck you.” Liar, con-man, misogynist: it’s astounding that anyone could have voted for him. The fact that some women did shows me how far we need to go to create a feminist society.
OR: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the next ten years? Why?
Jong: I am extremely pessimistic about the world we are leaving for our children and grandchildren. The denial of climate change will hurt them more than anyone. The denial of science is dangerous to our future. The future does not look bright to me until we address our planetary problems through science and education about science. We are almost at the end of the line. There are some desperate oligarchs who believe we can live under the sea in private gated underwater villages — what a sad and soggy future. I love the sea but I don’t want to live under it.
Love this content? Then you’ll love our inaugural live event, The Octavian Forum. The Forum will be held at Sotheby’s on October 17th 2017 and will feature Erica talking about contemporary America. Click here to learn more.
Fear of Flying, Erica Jong’s first and most famous novel, sold over 27 million copies. In the four decades since, she has published over 25 books in 43 languages