- Introduction to Focus:Literary Nakedness
This preface must begin with an apology of sorts. Every one of the reviewers participating in this feature should have had their own books highlighted here. By virtue of their most recent books being more than a few years old, or simply their own generosity, they have foregone being the feature in order to help produce the feature.
The by-line above gives my name. Who I am is only important here because the “sex-writing” feature was my proposal, and now I am presenting it. Like any good administrator, I found someone better equipped to convey overview remarks about the topic. I knew Gina Frangello—a writer with mettle and the guts to be a book-imprint editor—has more chops to put a focus on the focus. More practically, it is only my “qualifications” that may be of some significance in selecting and overseeing the production this focus.
If this is a controversial issue at all, it is undoubtedly a different one for women than it might be for male writers. Certain women writers ten years younger than me have commented—in this way they have that loves to point out our age difference in almost every conversation—that there never was a taboo or breakout moment for them, with regards to writing frankly about sexuality. They say it was already there, with Kathy Acker and Mary Gaitskill, et al. Of course we’re speaking of a breakout moment for women writers, because the men had already been there (writing sex) for easily a century, even two. But the women go back a ways too, depending on how you’re defining their writings—or defining sexuality, for that matter. There was something called “erotica” that, somehow, wasn’t fiction or poetry. And if you want to count Sappho, then what “breakout moment” am I talking about here? Yet still, these ten-years-younger writers seem to be assuming I climbed out from a church basement in the 50s. Actually, sex-writing was “already there” for me too, when Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973) hit the mainstream bookstores, then the bestseller list, before I had any awareness of what was being published by whom, except for the male canon still being required in my high school English classes.
I read Jong’s book several years later when it had already come out in paperback. I didn’t know that John Updike had said it had “[a] sexual frankness that belongs to, and hilariously extends the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye  and Portnoy’s Complaint .” (I don’t recall a great deal of sexual frankness in Catcher. I wouldn’t have assigned it to be reviewed in this focus issue.) I didn’t know Michael Ryan, the head of Columbia’s rare-books-and-manuscripts collection, referred to Jong’s first novel as “a seminal work.” (I might have to skip the politics of his choice of words, except how fitting.) And I wasn’t aware that Henry Miller, 83 at the time, noted that a woman had finally written the female equivalent of Tropic of Cancer (1934).
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I also didn’t know that Ms. Magazine had said Jong “was the first woman to write in such a daring and humorous way about sex,” nor that in one of her interviews, Jong said, “Males were writing about the bedroom. Why not women? Why not me? But we were still undiscovered country. No one had written about what goes on in a woman’s head with any nakedness.” I didn’t know that she had thus given me permission.
I also didn’t know about the caveat that accompanied her blazed trail. As Jong recounts:
Paul Theroux reviewing the book in the New Statesman said “Isadora Wing is nothing but a mammoth pudenda roomy as the Carlsbad Caverns.” You never forget a review like that. Merv Griffin said, “You just want to piss standing up.” Oh, he didn’t say “piss….” The feminists said that Isadora was not a feminist...