Fear of Flying, Erica Jong’s 1973 blockbuster novel, begins with an ingenious opening line.

There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I’d been treated by at least six of them.

In those 21 words, Jong introduces her book’s droll, wisecracking tone, suggesting a journey that will transport her narrator’s mind and body. The reference to a post-war Vienna foreshadows the book’s more serious themes. But another three words Jong coined, “the zipless fuck”, are most often credited for Fear of Flying’s reported 35 million-plus sales (and more on this later).

We soon learn the novel’s heroine, Isadora Wing, is accompanying Bennett, her Chinese-American psychiatrist husband, to an international congress in honour of Freud. A couple of years earlier, the newly married couple had lived on a US army base in Heidelberg, and Isadora is alert to the antisemitism still thriving in Europe. She imagines the reception awaiting them in Vienna, from the people “who invented schmaltz (and crematoria)”:

Welcome back! Welcome Back! At least those of you who survived Auschwitz, Belsen, the London Blitz, and the co-optation of America.

Isadora (as Jong was in the early 1970s) is a 29-year-old writer from an artistic New York Jewish family who has recently published a book of erotic poetry. She is also terrified of flying (understandable in the 1970s, an era when plane crashes and hijackings were not uncommon):

My fingers (and toes) turn to ice, my stomach leaps upwards into my ribcage, the temperature in the tip of my nose drops to the same level as the temperature of my fingers, my nipples stand up and salute the inside of my bra (or in this case, dress – since I’m not wearing a bra).

Isadora’s fear of flight seems to contradict her surname: marriage, she says, has given her a safe nest, the quietude she needs to create. But she can’t stop thinking about using her wings, about other lives she could lead. It’s no coincidence this story begins on a plane, a space suggesting new possibilities, charged with erotic potential as well as the distant prospect of being extinguished.

Id versus ego

In Vienna, where Isadora is writing about the conference for Voyeur magazine, she meets analyst Adrian Goodlove. A paunchy Englishman with dirty toenails, shaggy blond hair and a pipe “hanging out of his face”, he looks at her “the way a man smiles when he’s lying on top of you after a particularly good lay”. And he delivers the first of what will be many backhanded compliments: “If you’d stop being paranoid for a minute and use charm instead of main force, I’m sure nobody could resist you”.

Between his flattery and his accusations that she is leading a dishonest life, Goodlove presses all Isadora’s buttons. That night he grabs her “plump ass” while they talk about new trends in psychotherapy. “In general,” she declares, “I seem to like men who can make that quick transition from spirit to matter.”

Our narrator’s dilemma is how to resolve the contradictions of a pleasure-seeking id that wants to live without planning or expectations, and a rational ego that tells her the more paternal and nurturing Bennett, the man who helped her overcome writer’s block, is her safest bet. (Even his name – if you delete a “t” – suggests a happy-ever-after Jane Austen novel.)

Fear of Flying was released soon after the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe vs Wade legalising abortion. Jong was writing as second-wave feminism was in the ascendancy and her novel often reads like a feminist manifesto:

Damned clever, I thought, how men had made life so intolerable for single women that most would gladly embrace even bad marriages instead.

After a less than satisfying first sexual encounter with Goodlove, Isadora muses on the asymmetry of sexual relations in a world where men may turn limp, but women are considered eternally ready:

No wonder men hated women. No wonder men invented the myth of female sexual inadequacy.

But the twice-married Isadora is also a pragmatic realist. She believes in matrimony because:

It was necessary to have one best friend in a hostile world, one person you’d be loyal to no matter what, one person who’d always be loyal to you.

Still, what is she to do with the restlessness that can maroon long-term relationships? With the,

thump in the c**t, the longing to be filled up […] the yearning for dry champagne and wet kisses, for the smell of peonies in a penthouse on a June night […]

Jong was aligned with the second wave’s pro-sex feminism. Germaine Greer, for instance, had argued in The Female Eunuch that women’s liberation should begin with their sexual liberation.

But sexual ecstasy isn’t really all Isadora wants either. It’s her imagination that excites her. At a conference talk, she and Goodlove stare at each other:

He sucks on his pipe as if he were sucking on me […] He drags on his pipe. I drag on his phantom prick […] Little heat waves seem to connect our pelvises as if in some pornographic comic.

Her taste in men might be “questionable” Isadora admits (she loves Goodlove’s sweat and tobacco smells and doesn’t even mind his “exuberant public farting”) but “who can debate taste anyway?”, she rightly points out.

A liberal time

When Fear of Flying was released in Australia, censorship laws were relaxing, Dolly Doctor had begun giving teen girls advice about sexual health, actor Jack Thompson had stripped for a Cleo magazine centrefold and the full frontal nudity of Tim Burstall’s 1973 film Alvin Purple was filling cinemas.

As historian Michelle Arrow has written, in the 1970s the personal was becoming political, and Australians’ attitudes to sex and sexuality were rapidly liberalising. Many children of the 1970s will, like me, remember Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex on their family’s bookshelves alongside copies of National Geographic. Fear of Flying was a part of this new landscape.

Jong’s story can also be read in the context of a world emerging from the senselessness of the two world wars, with the US digging into another war in Vietnam. In Heidelberg, Isadora had written columns about the dishonesty of German guidebooks which tied a “fig leaf” over their recent history of fascism and gas chambers. Now her target is middle-class sexual morality. When Goodlove gives her a lift to her hotel, she thinks:

How hypocritical to go upstairs with a man you don’t want to fuck, leave the one you do sitting there alone, and then, in a state of great excitement, fuck the one you don’t want to fuck while pretending he’s the one you do. That’s called fidelity. That’s called monogamy. That’s called civilisation and its discontents.

When the conference ends, Isadora leaves with Goodlove to criss-cross Europe while making love, a quest that seems to give a symbolic middle finger to all the forces that made war on that continent. And she embraces the intellectual movements trying to find meaning in humanity’s absurdity.

She introduces the two of them to clueless travellers as “Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre”. Camping by roadsides at night, they discuss how:

We’d learn to do away with silly things like jealousy. We’d fuck each other and all our friends. We’d live without worrying about possessions or possessiveness. Eventually someday, we’d establish a commune for schizophrenics, poets, and radical shrinks.

The novel slips between musings about history and philosophy and flashbacks to Isadora’s childhood and earlier relationships, to fragments of poetry and humorous lists. The writing is sometimes beautifully evocative. A woman looking out a train window is “staring at each olive tree as if she were God and had just made them and were wondering what to call them”.

Isadora’s road trip has a propulsive energy (she’s as much Jack Kerouac as de Beauvoir) but contemporary readers may find Jong’s writing at times unforgivably shocking in all the wrong ways. While Isadora is alive to antisemitism, a chapter covering an interlude in Beirut with her brother-in-law’s family is titled “Arabs and other animals,” (“If I were writing today, I would never say [that]” Jong acknowledged in 2008.) In another chapter, she describes Indian writers “punjabbering away” at a writers’ festival.

When Isadora poses questions (“Was loneliness universal?”) I was reminded of the framing device used in Sex and The City, where Carrie Bradshaw, another magazine writer, sits at a keyboard while her voice-over begins a column. (Isadora’s sexual adventurousness also suggests a Samantha, from the same TV show – or a Jessa or Hannah from Lena Dunham’s Girls). We can also see shades of Jong’s mixing of political ponderings with descriptions of (often unsatisfying) sex in Irish author Sally Rooney’s contemporary novels.

But there is a joyful abandon in Jong’s story that sets it apart from today’s sad girl novels. Jong was writing at a time when radical change seemed imminent. Today’s stories are written when worldwide systems collapse appears all but certain when technological ennui and a pandemic can reduce foreplay to the characters in a novel waiting for green dots to appear on their messaging app.

Male critics

One of the pleasures (for this reader, at least) of Fear of Flying is Jong’s constant shifts in register, with Isadora reflecting on existentialism and fascism and history and Shakespeare one minute then turning her attention to the sometimes squalid and often sexy stuff of life the next. Jong is funny in a quippy, sometimes punny way. (“Phallocentric, someone once said of Freud. He thought the sun revolved around the penis. And the daughter, too.”).

Some of the book’s earliest reviewers were, however, brutal. Jong’s “narration denigrates all women by casting them in her mold; people who don’t know what they want,” wrote Terry Stokes in the New York Times. “The male figures are portrayed as either lifeless or fall guys for Isadora’s proclamations,” he added, concluding that the book’s “whining” spoils “this otherwise energetic, bawdy, well-conceived first novel.”

In The Observer, Martin Amis argued Jong had merely written a memoir: “The girls [Erica/Isadora] seem to be more or less interchangeable. They are both thirtyish, both blonde and blue-eyed, and both married to Asian psychiatrists.” He ridicules her “beefs about women’s lib, creative commitment, dieting, orgasms”, adding:

I neither know nor care whether all the horrible and embarrassing things in this book have actually happened to Miss Jong.

In 1977, an Australian novel about another 30ish woman writer that was equally shocking in its explicit language and descriptions of a woman’s desires left male reviewers similarly non-plussed. Helen Garner eventually responded to the critics of Monkey Grip in an essay that could equally serve as a riposte to Amis’ criticisms of Jong.

Why the sneer in ‘All she’s done is publish her diaries’? It’s as if this were cheating […] As if there were no work involved in keeping a diary in the first place: no thinking, no discipline, no creative energy, no focusing or directing of creative energy; no intelligent or artful ordering of material; no choosing of material, for God’s sake; no shaping of narrative; no ear for the music of human speech; no portrayal of the physical world; no free movement back and forth in time; no leaping between inner and outer; no examination of motive; no imaginative use of language.

Jong seems to preempt male reviewers’ criticisms of her book when she has her character, Isadora, ponder why she’d abandoned two earlier novels.

I just assumed nobody would be interested in a woman’s point of view. Besides, I didn’t want to risk being called all the things women writers (even good women writers) are called: ‘clever, witty, bright, touching, but lacks scope’.

Interestingly though, another male writer, John Updike, helped Jong’s rise up the bestseller list. Even so, his compliments can read as backhanded as Goodlove’s:

It has class and sass, brightness and bite. Containing all the cracked eggs of the feminist litany, her soufflé rises with a poet’s afflatus. She sprinkles on the four-letter words as if women had invented them; her cheerful sexual frankness brings a new flavor to female prose.

Updike favourably links Jong with great male writers JD Salinger and Philip Roth, while carefully distinguishing her from the more disagreeable women’s liberationists:

Fear of Flying not only stands as a notably luxuriant and glowing bloom in the sometimes thistly garden of ‘raised’ feminine consciousness but belongs to, and hilariously extends, the tradition of Catcher in the Rye and Portnoy’s Complaint.

Pull quotes from Updike’s review featured on the novel’s second edition (the one I have been reading), along with a new cover: a luscious 70s serif typeface in black and orange on a yellow background that blatantly copies the 1969 cover of Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

But Jong never received the same literary establishment acceptance as Roth, whose novels also feature characters with strong parallels to the author’s own life. In a 2011 open letter to the author Jane Smiley, Jong warns of the fleeting successes often afforded to women writers:

The male literary establishment allows us in on sufferance […] Most women writers have been remembered for their love affairs, not their words.

Jong has not always been unconditionally accepted in the feminist canon either. When Fear of Flying was left out of the 1980 book The Decade of Women: A Ms History of the Seventies in Words and Pictures, the wounded author complained in a letter to Gloria Steinem and the book’s co-editors, arguing her novel was “probably the most widely read feminist book of the decade”.

That zip

Perhaps it was Jong’s best-known verbal invention, “the zipless fuck”, that’s responsible for her troubled position within the women’s movement: the concept was perhaps just too fluffy, too frivolous for such a serious movement.

The zipless fuck was, Isadora acknowledges, simply an “ideal”: when two people came together and “zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff”.

In a zipless fuck, according to Isadora, the participants can’t know anything about each other. No names and barely any faces are involved. It certainly can’t be planned (assignations on Tinder or Grindr would not qualify).

The zipless fuck, she says,

has all the swift compression of a dream and is seemingly free of all remorse and guilt; because there is no talk of her late husband or of his fiancée; because there is no rationalizing; because there is no talk at all […] The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn.

In Fear of Flying, the existentialist Goodlove abruptly ends their affair when he tells her he had planned to return to his wife and children all along. Isadora retreats to London, where she talks her way into the hotel where Bennett is staying. Alone in a bath, she looks at her sunburned limbs and decides she has a “nice body”.

The scene could be read as a capitulation to heterosexual marriage, but by the novel’s end it’s not clear if she will stay. What she has found is some love and desire, for herself. Perhaps even a story. And she is no longer afraid.

Sex as liberation

Issues of consent and sexual assault have rightly been a headline focus of recent feminism. Jong writes about two incidents of sexual assault in Fear of Flying. But while they are turning points for Isadora, they are not defining experiences.

The novel is a useful reminder of the way feminism has also always been interested in the liberatory powers of sex. And it reminds us that our desires can be multiple and contradictory, destructive and productive. They are always in flux and, in an important sense, ultimately unknowable to ourselves.

In a foreword to Penguin’s 50th anniversary edition of Fear of Flying, Jong’s daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, recalls that for decades women would come up to her mother, “look earnestly into her eyes, and tell her how the book had changed their lives”.

Jong went on to write eight more novels, poetry collections, non-fiction works (including the 2012 A Letter to the President, about the still unfinished work of feminism) as well as memoirs and children’s books. But none, including the recent Fear of Dying, the story of sixty-something Vanessa, Isadora’s sexually voracious now good friend, would have the cultural impact of Fear of Flying.

Jong’s commercial success was, in part, responsible for the arms-length distance the academy long gave her. When Columbia University held a 2008 conference on Jong’s work after acquiring her literary papers, Jong was interviewed by English professor Jenny Davidson. Fear of Flying brought Jong fame and celebrity, but as Jong told the Columbia audience the book was both a gift and a “curse.” Jong said she had always wanted to be a poet and professor of literature.

In 2022, Swiss director Kaspar Kasic’s documentary about Jong, Breaking the Wall, was released. Its mix of archival and contemporary footage testifies to the enduring power of Jong’s story across decades, across languages and cultures.

Also in 2022 Jong’s daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, wrote a piece for The Atlantic as a new conservative court was about to overturn the right to an abortion enshrined by Roe v Wade. Jong-Fast reflected on how she had grown up with “an automatic assumption of reproductive rights” that her mother “did not have”.

In the pre-Roe years of the early 1970s, Isadora was sexually daring but still terrified of pregnancy. She’s preoccupied with waiting for her period to come and sourcing the diaphragms only easily available to married women.

Perhaps this is why, reflecting on the book’s fiftieth anniversary last year, and as women’s rights to bodily autonomy are being rolled back in the US, feminist critic Elaine Showalter concluded that Fear of Flying “still speaks to us”.

Jong is now losing her memory to dementia. Showalter also remarks, “Even if the author is disappearing, the novel is still there, still funny, exuberant, ambitious and intelligent”. It is a novel that reminds us that great feminist books have always wanted to change not just lives, but the whole world.

Kath Kenny is a sessional academic at the Department of Media, Communications, Creative Arts, Language, and Literature at Macquarie University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.