Erica Jong was angry at times on Saturday night when she spoke at BookHampton’s East Hampton store.
An appreciative capacity crowd of some 75 to 100 people — predominantly women, most over a certain age, and a few with husbands or daughters in tow — filled seats, jammed aisles, and trailed out the door. Ms. Jong was there to lambaste the bestselling book “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James and point out that its popularity comes at a time when women’s rights are under attack by conservative politicians in several states and on a federal level. “Thirteen states have laws that challenge things we thought were settled. Things we thought we had won.” She was referring to new limits on abortion and to ultrasounds through vaginal probes prior to abortions now required in Virginia.
At the same time, with a crowd of her peers in attendance, she addressed the positive changes that have happened since her book “Fear of Flying” was published in 1973. Changes in race relations and a younger generation that sees nothing remarkable about gay marriage were hopeful signs, despite efforts to turn back the clock on such attitudes in some quarters.
Ms. Jong’s book, which caused a sensation in the United States when it was published, was written all through her 20s. “I wrote it for a long time. I had to get the voice right.” She said her goal was to have a heroine who was “very smart, very sexual, and attracted to men.” She wanted someone who had a professional and intellectual life as passionate as her domestic and intimate life.
It has since been anointed as a classic by institutions such as Columbia University, she said. It has also given her cachet as the person to go to for reactions on the sexual zeitgeist.
Her feelings about “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which features erotic scenes of bondage, dominance, and submissiveness, are that “it’s a reactionary fantasy for a reactionary time.”
Her own description of the book was ripe with disdain. Anastasia Steele meets “a master of the universe in true 1980s style, Christian Grey. He says ‘Don’t get involved with me, I will hurt you. I’m a bad guy.’ . . . After five very boring chapters in which nothing interesting happens, he takes her to the Red Room, where she’s bound and gagged and he dominates her.”
It is not just the fantasy that she finds questionable, it is also the writing, which she described as execrable, “which doesn’t matter. As Ezra Pound said, the reader of best sellers can’t be distracted by nice writing, and that seems to be true.” She pointed to passages where, during the loss of her virginity, the heroine says “argh” and during orgasm “holy cow.”
She attributed much of the buzz in the press about the book to its $5 million movie deal. But she said that it was likely that a movie of that book will never be made. “It’s not going to sell to 12-year-old boys in Asia,” which she said is the primary Hollywood movie market at present.
“Unfortunately, the people reading this book don’t know we have a rich tradition of erotica by women,” she added, mentioning “The Story of O” by Anne Desclos under the pen name Pauline Réage and “Little Birds” by Anais Nin as examples. “Your fantasies don’t have to be politically correct. I don’t negate the fantasies” of Ms. James’s book, “but I wish they were better, better executed, and not so diminishing to women. It seems to fit together with the reactionary war on women going on.”
A woman in the audience who described herself as a psychoanalyst and educator praised the book for providing an outlet for young women to talk about their sexuality more openly. She said that the heroine in “Grey” doesn’t end up as his object and, while not great literature, it did increase people’s willingness to talk about sexuality in different arenas.
Ms. Jong accepted the viewpoint and conceded that “not every book has to be a classic or a great book. We don’t give ourselves enough pleasure in this country. We have the shortest vacations in the world, we’re always on diets, and we don’t read enough that gives us pleasure.”