As a huge fan of the classic feminist novel Fear of Flying, I was delighted to get the opportunity to reflect upon the book and its impact on me in a blog post for The Big Comfy Bookshop, my local second-hand bookshop. I was then both amused and slightly intimidated to discover that Fear of Flying author Erica Jong has also reflected on the book’s impact in an article for the New York Times at the weekend. Jong was writing in the context of the fortieth anniversary of Fear of Flying‘s publication, but recent weeks have seen a number of media commentaries about women’s writing and female characters – prompted, of course, by the much anticipated (and much criticized) third Bridget Jones offering by Helen Fielding.
As Hadley Freeman notes in her astute questioning of the Bridget Jones phenomena in today’s the Guardian, we continue to discuss women characters in terms of likeablility or being relatable in a way that simply don’t with fictional men. Humbert Humbert is the example that Freeman gives; having a vile paedophile protagonist has not stopped Lolita being a well-regarded best-seller. Yet the morals and ‘personality’ of fictional women, whether in literature or the media, remain an obsession. I have encountered this when recommending Fear of Flying to people. One friend told me that she didn’t like the book because the heroine, Isadora, was ‘a bit whiney’; I guess she assumed that I viewed her as a role model or some kind of inspiration. I don’t, no more than I would base my life choices upon advice given by Bridget Jones. There are passages in Fear of Flying where I strongly empathize with Isadora’s feelings and recognise similar situations in my own life; there have also been times when I’ve thought I’m having an ‘Isadora moment’. But this is about recognition of human emotions, not identifying as her or shaping my behaviour to mimic hers. Isadora was a 28 year old married writer from New York City; I am now a 31 year old single academic from the Midlands. These differences between us in no way diminish my strong attachment to Fear of Flying. Likewise, my age and relationship status do not mean that I am some kind of ‘real life Bridget Jones’. I eagerly await the arrival of Mad About the Boy on my doormat but I will be reading it as a work of fiction, not a lifestyle guide for when I am in my fifties.