NEW YORK • Two words have vexed Erica Jong for the past 42 years.
The first is "zipless" and the second is not printable in this newspaper.
The phrase, immortalised in her 1973 best-selling novel, Fear Of Flying, which has sold more than
27 million copies, entered the cultural lexicon as a shorthand for casual, consequence-free sex.
It turned Jong into a feminist heroine of sorts and avatar of female sexual liberation, and helped propel and define her career.
It was also meant to be satirical, she said, but was misconstrued as an endorsement of unbridled lust.
"People misinterpreted zipless," Jong, 73, said during an interview at her Manhattan apartment.
"I say in Fear Of Flying that it's a platonic ideal and a fantasy and I have never had one, but people seem to overlook that."
Now, decades later, she has exhumed and rebranded the phrase in her new novel, Fear Of Dying, which was released yesterday and billed as the "spiritual" sequel to Fear Of Flying.
While Fear Of Flying shocked readers with its frank depiction of the sexual appetite and independence of its protagonist, Isadora Wing, Fear Of Dying takes on another, more persistent taboo by depicting - in blunt, unvarnished detail - sex between older adults. Jong's new character, a grandmother in her 60s, is lusty and vivacious and searching for carnal satisfaction at a casual-sex site called zipless.com.
"I've always wanted to write the books for women that didn't yet exist, so I thought, I have to write about an older woman who is sexual, attractive and wants to reach out for life," Jong said.
"That's not celebrated, sadly, and I would hope that a lot of older women who read this book realise that sex doesn't disappear; it just changes form."
The story centres on Vanessa Wonderman, a former actress terrified of ageing and death.
She seeks escape from her sexless marriage to a much older man with erectile dysfunction by searching for lovers online.
The surreal encounters that follow - an e-mail exchange with a man who introduces himself by sending lewd photos, another who wants her to wear a black rubber suit, an unsatisfying hotel tryst with an old married flame - leave Vanessa reeling and worried that her sex life might be over.
Some of Jong's fans and peers are calling the novel a long overdue corrective in a cultural landscape that deifies youth and often ignores older women, or relegates them to the role of spinsters or crones.
"There is this giant void in the culture about women in that age group as heroines, as romantic beings, as sexual beings and as creative beings, and there's not that void for men," said Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth.
"Women don't stop being all those things as their lives continue into those decades."
Fear Of Dying is landing in the middle of a long-festering debate about the social and cultural obstacles older women face.
Comedienne Amy Schumer has skewered the frequent sidelining of older actresses in a widely viewed skit built around the farcical - though just barely - premise that an ageing actress' desirability could dissipate in a single day.
Sex therapists and gurus have published dozens of manuals and self-help books with titles such as Sex For Seniors and Sex Over 50. There is also the gag book Sex After 60, which is blank inside.
However, the subject has not been widely explored in popular fiction.
"Women were not allowed to have passion at 60," Jong writes in Fear Of Dying. "We were supposed to become grandmothers and retreat into serene sexlessness." She has been struggling to write Fear Of Dying for a decade. At first, she tried to make an older, wiser Isadora the heroine. However, bringing back that character felt forced.
"There was so much baggage around Fear Of Flying," she said. "The weight of those expectations was very frightening."
Jong eventually sidelined Isadora to a cameo role as a worldly friend, and created Vanessa, who shares some obvious traits with the author.
She used the book to explore the heart-rending process of watching her parents' slow demise, her fear of losing her looks and vitality, the joys of being a grandmother and her relationship with her daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, who, like Vanessa, struggled with drug addiction.
A few literary critics have taken aim at Jong's self-referential style and habit of recycling material.
In an advance review of Fear Of Dying, a critic for Kirkus Reviews said that "spending almost 300 pages with Vanessa is like enduring a trans-Atlantic flight with a seat mate who never stops talking but doesn't have a whole lot to say". Jong said she had a thicker skin than she did earlier in her career and is more philosophical about negative reviews.
"We can't really control our image in the world," she said. "But it still hurts if you spend a decade on a book and people don't like it."
She has many vocal supporters, among them Susan Cheever; historical novelist Ken Follett, who said the new novel represented
"Erica at her best"; and novelist Jennifer Weiner, who counts Fear Of Flying as one of her literary influences.
Jong also found a fan in one of her comic heroes, Woody Allen, who loved Fear Of Dying and unexpectedly gave it a blurb.
"I was thinking of his famous quote, 'I'm not afraid of dying; I just don't want to be there when it happens,' so I thought he should read this," Jong said.
"The first thing he said when we sent it was, 'I never blurb anything.' Then he relented."
NEW YORK TIMES