Commentary Magazine


Fear of Fiction

To the Editor:

As a writer and a woman and not a radical feminist, I take violent exception to Jane Larkin Crain’s “Feminist Fiction” [December 1974]. Mrs. Crain sees the new crop of brilliant, aware writers as shallow artists who are using their books for the sole purpose of rallying us to the crazed banner of the woman’s movement. Nothing could be farther from fact, and Mrs. Crain’s article shows not only that she doesn’t understand the unhappiness of many women’s lives, but that she hates to see that desperation portrayed honestly and graphically in fiction. Is everyone who does not “love every minute” of wife- and motherhood a radical feminist?

Women are now writing from their point of view about their world. . . . Men have been writing for centuries not only about themselves, but about women’s personalities, proving time and again in fiction how little they understand females. . . .

Unfortunately for Mrs. Crain, she seems to see all works of dedicated male authors as literature while characterizing those of intellectual female authors as “soap opera.” She is obviously too steeped in her own anti-ideology to see the richness and complexity in the novels she is so haphazardly analyzing.

Moreover, anyone who can place a group of novelists in such a rigid and patterned framework can know very little about the whole concept of writing itself. Perhaps Mrs. Crain needs some lessons in literature from the likes of Erica Jong or Lois Gould.

Roberta Goldin Morgan
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . It was with great anticipation that I sat down to read Jane Larkin Crain’s “Feminist Fiction,” and with equally great disappointment that I finished it. The author misunderstands the motivation of today’s feminist novelists. Despite their disillusionment with marriage, none of the writers she discusses criticizes marriage as an institution. What they decry is the fraud perpetrated on women by the double standard in marriage. A husband who is unfaithful, critical, and demanding is, after all, a man, and therefore entitled to be so, but a wife who is capable of the same behavior is an ungrateful harlot. Mrs. Crain also seems to miss the frustration that is particularly the lot of the woman writer, who is supposed to write God a thank-you note for finding her a husband, but never a novel exploring her lack of happiness with the married state.

Mrs. Crain further misunderstands the heroines of these novels. She criticizes them for being weak and indecisive, without so much as a thought about the etiology of these traits. When Philip Roth or other male writers depict a self-hating, sexually exploitative, selfish anti-hero, clearly the fault lies with the hero’s phlegmatic father or his pushy, aggressive mother. According to Mrs. Crain, however, in feminist fiction the protagonists’ weaknesses are sui generis.

Since all of the authors mentioned in the article are Jewish, I cannot conceive that their religion did not play a significant role in their development. As little girls we were all taught to please, in the hope that we would then assume our expected roles in society. As Jews, we were continuously taught not to displease, since to do so would bring shame on all our heads. What an awesome double responsibility. In both cases, the rewards were the same. We could expect to grow up to be someone’s wife. With most feminist novelists, I share the view that being someone’s wife is lovely, when there are also other rewards.

Ruth S. King
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . Jane Larkin Crain’s basic contention seems reasonable enough: why should . . . authors, “fired by the spirit of a movement predicated on the worth of women . . . consistently create characters unwilling to take any initiative in their lives?” . . . But Erica Jong’s work seems to me unworthy of such shallow criticism in the context of stressing a point.

While it is true that Fear of Flying is an analysis and dissection of the qualities of the married state, it is not a black-and-white commentary. . . . The protagonist, Isadora Wing, has had plenty of time to analyze her situation; and being the energetic, imaginative, “unstoppable talker” Mrs. Crain describes her as (in fact, one could also take issue with Mrs. Crain’s appellation of “chatterbox” to Isadora as being a snide put-down in anti-feminist terms of a character trait which, in women at least, Mrs. Crain seems to find annoying; it is doubtful that she would describe a man thus), as well as a writer, she has taken the trouble to explore thoroughly her dissatisfaction and attempted solutions. Isadora does not “drift, trance-like, into marriage because it seems the only ‘normal’ and proper thing to do,” whereby all “needs and longings will be satisfied.” Rather, her first husband insisted on marriage, and she “was scared of losing him, and . . . was graduating from college and didn’t know what the hell else to do.” This situation is far from uncommon and need not even have been disastrous. Isadora feels free enough to pursue her own graduate work and writing for example. . . .

The second marriage—to Bennett, an analyst—seems a logical Freudian rebound. Her explanation is simple and straightforward: “We were sick of being single; we were terrified of being alone; we were happy together in bed; we were frightened of the future; we were married one day before Bennett had to leave for Fort Sam Houston.” Notice the use of “we,” terminology which would also make one question whether the author feels that “all of history is engaged in a conspiracy to make women marry,” to quote Mrs. Crain.

Neither is her second husband one to “suffer frequently from impotence and contrive to make [his wife] feel responsible for it” or “make outrageously unreasonable demands” on her. . . . Additionally, when she “very much needed someone to approve of [her] act of writing . . . he did that.” “The fact was,” Isadora maintains, “that he believed in me long before I believed in myself.”

Nevertheless, she believes in herself sufficiently to refuse to bear children, feeling that her need in that respect is less compelling than her need to pursue identity through writing (and feeling that she could not handle both activities at the same time), despite considerable family pressure. Her husbands never pushed her in this regard, either. . . .

It is after five years of her second marriage and the publication of a book of poetry . . . that she feels confident about entering into an affair with a British analyst, Adrian. Formerly, she has only been able to fantasize; now she can actively confront her conception of a free life style.

If I had learned how to write, mightn’t I also learn how to live? Adrian, it seemed, wanted to teach me how to live. Bennett, it seemed, wanted to teach me how to die. And I didn’t even know which I wanted. Or maybe I had them pegged wrong. Maybe life was compromise and sadness, while ecstasy ended inevitably in death. . . .

It is also evident that the heroine, if not mature by the end of the book (who is?), certainly matures inextricably with, and as inevitably as, the plot itself. Perhaps Mrs. Crain would not have written that “the characters in feminist novels have no notion of adulthood as anything other than a burden so heavy that it might be better done away with altogether,” had she reread the last two chapters of this novel, wherein Isadora resolves not to be afraid of change, but to grow within it and accept the consequences:

It was also heartening to see how much I had changed in the past four years. . . . I was able to spend long hours alone writing. I taught, gave lectures, traveled. Terrified of flying as I was, I didn’t allow that fear to control me. Perhaps some day I’d lose it altogether. . . . As I got older I would probably change in hundreds of ways I couldn’t foresee. All I had to do was wait it out. . . .

It is clear that Fear of Flying offers too much to be dismissed with sociological labels and superficial literary criticism.

Eve Siegel
Washington, D.C.

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Jane Larkin Crain writes:

There is no arguing with the predispositions of women like Roberta Goldin Morgan, Ruth S. King, and Eve Siegel. The books I discussed in my article are really quite dreadful, and it should be obvious (at least to the disinterested reader) that to judge them by the standards of literary merit is to find them wanting in every respect. “Feminist” novels (as these letters indicate) have won their numerous champions because they purvey a special “message” about the nature of things that some people are eager to hear. I would only say, to Roberta Goldin Morgan, that the “rigid and patterned framework” in which I “place” the novels of Lois Gould, Sue Kaufman, and Erica Jong (plenty of novels exactly like them would fit with equal precision) is suggested, demanded, by the unrelieved tendentiousness of the novels themselves. As for Eve Siegel’s defense of Fear of Flying, I will reiterate—what is also illustrated by the quotations Mrs. Siegel has chosen—that, after three hundred pages of self-examination, Erica Jong’s childish and narcissistic heroine is blessed with the revelation that only a life free of entailments (especially to husbands and children) will suit her. Such a sense of the world and one’s place in it can be called many things (Mrs. Siegel’s own term, “free life style,” is apt) but it cannot be called “adult.”

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