A year ago, Morris Dickstein, writing in The New York Times, singled out a group of women writers who, under the influence of Portnoy’s Complaint, were “getting into the confessional swing,” hurdling the barriers of sex. These writers, whose number has since increased, have been credited with representing a new wave, a bold and honest feminist realism. Erica Jong has “laid down in hard cold type the full details of her heroine’s sex life and fantasies,” wrote an excited Dorothy Sieberling in “The New Sexual Frankness: Goodbye to Hearts and Flowers” (New York Magazine, February 17, 1975). Erica Jong is of course the most visible representative of this movement, being the most successful commercially and the most publicized, but a number of other women who have published novels recently—Sue Kaufman (Falling Bodies), Sandra Hochman (Walking Papers), Barbara Raskin (Loose Ends), Jill Robinson (Bed/Time/Story), et al.—can be seen as sharing many of Jong’s characteristics.
These novels describe the sexual and other adventures of urban, upper-middle class, well-educated, and well-off women, women who are just like their authors, and doubtless like many of their readers. The heroines tend to be in their thirties, attractive to men; they have been married, and some of them still are. Many hold down jobs, and all use language worthy of a ship fitter. Sophisticated, these women talk about sex with the same insistence as Dan Jenkins’s football heroes in Semi-Tough.
None of the heroines gets too far, for too long, from Manhattan or LA or Washington, where they live well above the poverty line. The books describe a kind of consumer’s raised consciousness of urban clutter. Like conscientious housewives, the heroines are obsessed with making lists: of book titles, furniture, and especially food. A great deal of cooking and eating (mostly food of an elaborate kind), along with sex, or the pursuit of it, takes place. In fact, it is hard to figure out which is more important: food or sex. “Couscous for lunch and oysters for supper” is a day’s seduction menu in Fear of Flying; while Coco Burman, the heroine of Loose Ends, tries to woo back her husband with a meal consisting of blanc de blanc, Uncle Ben’s wild rice, “self-consciously stylized salad” (excluding the boycotted iceberg), oven-hot butterfly rolls, Chicken Kiev (which her husband punctures “so that the tarragon-flavored butter blurted out over his shirt”), and chocolate mousse (made out of Instant Chocolate Jello whip).
The clutter in Fear of Flying is also, and mainly, intellectual. Isadora Wing goes in for listing the scraps of culture of her New York City childhood and Barnard education. In fact, Fear of Flying is a veritable tourist guide for her readers of what to do and think about in the city: at the Metropolitan, Isadora sees “Turner’s storms and Tiepolo’s skies…DaVinci’s Madonna of the Rocks.” She is reading Edna St. Vincent Millay at fourteen, e e cummings the next year …