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.
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.
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.
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