Feminism and the Politics of Literary Reputation

The Example of Erica Jong

Charlotte Templin

Soon after its publication in 1973, Fear of Flying brought Erica Jong immense popular success and media fame. Alternately pegged sassy and vulgar, Jong's novel embraced the politics of the women's liberation movement and challenged the definition of female sexuality. Yet today, more than twenty years and several books later, literary reputation continues, for the most part, to elude Jong.

Typecast by her adversaries as a media-seeking sensationalist, Erica Jong has been unfairly side-stepped by academia, Charlotte Templin contends. In this carefully researched study augmented by personal interviews with Jong, Templin assembles and analyzes the medley of responses to Jong's books by reviewers, critics, writers, academics, and the media-by liberals, conservatives, and feminists. She examines the diverse opinions on the merit and relevance to contemporary life of Fear of Flying; the invocation of a high culture/low culture dichotomy to discredit How to Save Your Own Life; the anatomy of literary success with Fanny; Jong's reception in a postfeminist age, and the trivialization of Jong's works that is inevitable with mass media exposure.

“This fascinating book explores the vexed issue of literary reception in relation to feminism, making a detailed case study of Erica Jong. Templin traces the often tortuous movement toward an aesthetics of value that has been an important, if neglected, part of the history of feminism. Her analysis of the grim effects of publicity—and popularity—on Jong’s reputation makes for chilling reading. Templin demonstrates clearly the literary canon is not only about what people like to read; it concerns what ideas and values will prevail in the society at large. This is a pioneering book, well worth reading.”

—Jay Parini, author of The Last Station

“By detailing the history of Erica Jong’s reception by readers, reviewers, and academic critics, Templin raises important issues about those who are in a position to mediate culture, about distinctions between ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ literature, and about the peculiar position of the woman writer in both the popular imagination and the assessment of the cultural arbiter.”

—Nancy A. Walker, author of Feminist Alternatives: Irony and Fantasy in the Contemporary Novel by Women

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Templin also shows how antagonistic reviewers tend to identify Jong with her fictitious characters—a practice more common when the author is a woman—and judge her to be guilty of the sin of not being a "proper woman." In turn she shows how reviewers reveal something of their own values and ideological biases in their critiques and how literary reputations are built, destroyed, and altered over time.

The first book to make a detailed examination of the reputation of a woman writer, Feminism and the Politics of Literary Reputation provides an excellent case study for the literary reception of women writers within a broad cultural context. Templin's analysis offers valuable insight into the reception of women writers—especially commercially successful women writers—and dramatically illustrates the relation of literary reputation to popular appeal and cultural mores.

About the Author

Charlotte Templin is professor of English at the University of Indianapolis.