Erica Jong's second novel, How to Save Your Own Life, was released in the spring of 1977. Almost instantly the book became a bestseller. Within a few weeks of its release it climbed to number five on both the New York Times and Publisher's Weekly Bestseller list (Justice 166). The book remained popular throughout 1977 and ultimately was recorded as the 8th most popular fiction book of the year (Carder Books). The novel's popularity is the result of a combination of factors. How to Save Your Own Life was the sequel to Jong's first novel Fear of Flying, which had been a huge success with readers and critics. Readers who enjoyed Fear of Flying instantly became fans of How to Save Your Own Life and contributed much to the future success of the novel. 1970s fiction, is characterized the popular culture of the time, in particular, the culture of the women's movement that was beginning to take shape during the decade. How to Save Your Own Life appealed to women looking to further their autonomy and independence, especially within their relationships with men. The novel also enticed readers with its sex appeal. Not only was Jong's work erotic and sensual, the novel also seemed to be autobiographical. The possibility of reality fascinated readers, and drew them further into the novel. The autobiographical nature of the book did not, however, have the same effect on critics. Most critics hated the novel for that very reason. Many others disapproved of Jong's sexual exploits, her writing style and diction. Although the book was not critically well received, the novel was able to overcome this obstacle because of its public and social appeal, ultimately leading it to become one of the best selling novels of the 1970s.
How to Save Your Own Life explores the life of Isadora Wing, a novelist, who has recently released her first book entitled Candida Confesses. How to Save Your Own Life investigates how Isadora deals with this newfound fame. Isadora is often viewed to be very similar to Erica Jong. Both women are married to, and then later divorce, Chinese-American psychologists, both attended Barnard College, both currently live in Manhattan, and both women are experiencing the troubles that come with writing a best-selling book. To add to this interesting plot scheme, Isadora's own main character in her novel, Candida, is a continuation of both Erica and Isadora and exhibits the same characteristics of both of the women. For these reasons, How to Save Your Own Life is often regarded to be an autobiographical account of Erica Jong's life. Although Jong denies this claim, the interwoven plot adds much to the novel as a whole. The almost indistinguishable line between the three characters, Erica, Isadora, and Candida, allows for the novel to seem more realistic and provides an interesting insight to the time in which the novel was written.
The release of Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique in 1963 marked the beginnings of the feminist movement within the United States. The Feminine Mystique encouraged women to find outlets other than getting married and having children. Friedan encouraged her female readers to seek out new challenges and their own identity, and to no longer be subject to a male-dominated society (Decades). Growing from the Civil Rights Movement, middle class women started to demand recognition and equality (Decades). The development and marketing of the birth control bill along with Roe vs. Wade gave women the power to control their bodies, and with that came greater empowerment within society as a whole. Various women's organizations and publications grew out of the movement including National Organization of Women (NOW), Ms. magazine, and other books that addressed solely the health concerns of women, most notably the book Our Bodies, Ourselves (Decades) .
These events had an enormous impact towards the writing of the 1970s. Because women were becoming more independent and willing to express their needs, the literature of the time reflected the sexual-political changes that were beginning to take shape. In his book entitled Bestsellers: Popular Fiction of the 1970s literary scholar, John Sutherland separates women's literature of the 1970s into two subcategories. The first category is characterized by "emancipated" characters, "active attitudes", "documentary" style, and contemporary setting (Sutherland 85). Sutherland then argues that the other literary group present during the 1970s is more "traditional, historical, and romantic." He goes to explain that Erica Jong fits more with the first grouping, but is able to cross over between the two settings and therefore, is a greater success overall. Sutherland asserts that the sexual-political climate of the time period allowed for Erica Jong and other authors within both subcategories to write about women as independent, sexual, and autonomous (Sutherland 85). In fact, by looking at the other best-selling novels of the time, this revolution becomes even more evident. Titles including Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex but Were Afraid To Ask, The Joy of Sex, Scruples, The Total Woman, Passions of the Mind, Love Story, and The Thorn Birds filled the bestseller list of 1970s. In addition, The 1970s marked a dramatic increase in the role of romance within novels. Romance novel publishing houses doubled, even tripled their production in order to satisfy the demand of the time period (Sutherland 85).
Because How to Save Your Own Life explored the evolution of women, from being simplistic and domesticated to becoming sexual and independent beings, the novel was easily understood by women readers, and enjoyed by millions of women. Within the novel, Isadora discovers that her husband has had an affair. Even though she is guilty of the same, Isadora believes that his affair is more serious, and begins to examine what it would be like to actually leave her husband. Isadora realizes that she resents the control and impact her husband has on her life. Isadora discusses this impact in scene in particular when she examines her name, Isadora Wing.
"I am stuck with the 'Wing' forever-whether I leave Bennett or not. My nom de plume: Wing. Whoever else I marry, whoever else I love, my name is stamped in gold on those fine morocco presentation volumes publishers give authors for Christmas."
Isadora resents the fact that she is recognized only by her husband's name, and that he coerced her into using it. It seems here that Jong is appealing to women. She discusses the fact that women, are expected to take the name of their husband. Eventually, however, the woman becomes associated with that name, and it is almost impossible break away from that identity, therefore appealing to the feminist movement of the time. Jong also encourages her readers to be adventurous, especially when it comes to sex. Isadora's sexual experiences very from romantic encounters to orgies driven by the sole need for sexual gratification. It would seem that here Jong is telling her readers not to be afraid of their sexuality but to enjoy it and embrace it. With these instances in mind, along with countless others within the novel, it is apparent that Jong was attempting to appeal to the sexual revolution of the day and trying to show women that they too can be their own person.
How to Save Your Own Life owes a great deal of its success to its predecessor, Fear of Flying and to its author. Erica Jong's first novel was released in 1973, and was critically and publicly well received. Ms. Magazine reviewer, Karen Fitzgerald wrote that, "Jong was the first woman to write in such a daring and humorous way about sex. She popularized the idea of a woman's ultimate sexual fantasy?sex for the sake of sex (Gale)." Readers must have agreed with Ms. Fitzgerald and truly enjoyed reading Fear of Flying. In fact, when How to Save Your Own Life was released Fear of Flying had already sold over six million copies. Although Fear of Flying ever made the best seller list itself, its success helped to make the name of Erica Jong famous. Fear of Flying also provided readers with clues as to what How to Save Your Own Life is about. With this in mind, the increased name recognition of Erica Jong, along with a better understanding of her work by readers, helped to propel the success of How to Save Your Own Life
As previously mentioned, How to Save Your Own Life plays a unique and subtle game with its reader. The book seems incredibly true to life, and especially because the book is so similar to the life of Erica Jong. Although Jong repeatedly states that the novel is merely a "mock memoir allowing for complete range of interpretations between fact and fantasy," readers continually approach the novel as being "the gospel truth" about Erica Jong. The almost indistinguishable line between fantasy and reality that is demonstrated within the novel fascinates readers. In the midst of the sexual revolution, women looked to Isadora as a woman who was not afraid to express her sexuality or her independence. It was even more comforting to readers to assume that Isadora was in fact Erica, because it allowed for the belief that "if she can do it, I can too!" Although many sexual "how to" books were published during this time, it was comforting to readers to believe that Isadora/Erica had actually participated in these activities. The possibility of reality provided readers with a certain encouragement that they too could become sexual and independent.
Often characterized as Jong's "sophomoric jinx" How to Save Your Own Life received overwhelmingly negative reviews (Lichtenstein). Few critics had anything positive to say about the novel at all. Jong is criticized for her diction as being crude, plot being week, and her style as merely a cliché. In fact, Diane Johnson states in her New York Times Review of Books that "there is no point in talking about as a serious didactic work." While many books do receive negative reviews, How to Save Your Own Life is rather unusual. It seems as though Jong expected the negativity; she may have even antagonized it not only within the novel itself, but also during her interviews and promotions of the novel. The headline to the Publisher's Weeklyarticle about the novel states "The author of the new How to Save Your Own Life anticipating the critical axe?" Why did Jong anticipate the criticism? Perhaps it is because of her critical view of the press within her book. Jong writes:
"Ah, the literary world. They hate failure and despise success. They have contempt for authors whose books go unread and sheer hatred for authors whose book are read too much."
It also is worth noting that Jong refused to do an extensive promotional tour How to Save Your Own Life. Apparently, she despised book releases, and did not hesitate to mention so (Publishers 9). Perhaps Jong's critical failure was a direct result of her unwillingness to sell her book as a true success, and the fact that critics found her review of them within the novel offensive. However, perhaps it is Erica Jong who gets the last laugh. She wrote the novel, in some ways to criticize literary critics. Her critics did end up hating the novel, Jong was able to prove her point against the critics, and become a best-selling author at the same time.
All of the discussed factors contributed to How to Save Your Own Life success. It is interesting to try to investigate what all these factors and characteristics tell us about best-selling novels in general? First and foremost it must be mentioned that there is not one particular thing that can be done that can assure a novel's success. The fact How to Save Your Own Life was regarded as poorly written by many literary critics and received few positive reviews at all means little in terms of the public perception and acceptance of the novel. How to Save Your Own Life had the poorest reviews, but yet it made the bestseller list. This was not the case with Fear of Flying and successor Parachutes and Kisses both of which received more positive reviews, but ultimately never became bestsellers. Perhaps most importantly, How to Save Your Own Life was appropriate for the time period. Erica Jong's mind game with readers and critics, sexual exploits, and exciting twists were innovative, new, and exciting for the 1970s. However, if the novel had been written in the 1990s it probably would not have done nearly as well. Interestingly enough, the novel was last published in 1995, and is currently out of stock. How to Save Your Own Life is simply not as interesting to the 1990s reader, and, therefore, it is important for the author of a novel to consider the time in which a novel is written in order to help ensure its success.
How to Save Your Own Life is incredibly intriguing and provides great insight into the role of the women authors during the 1970s. Not only does the novel examine the social realities of the day, it also investigates the literary world. The novel is able to overcome its critical failure and ultimately has earned its place a bestseller.
Carder Books. September 1999. http://www.engl.virginia.edu/courses/enlt226m/f99/best70.html.
"Decades of Change." 1997. http://pdur.let.rug.nl/~usa/H/1994cha12_p12.htm.
"Erica Jong," Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group. 1999.
"Erica Jong." Publisher's Weekly. 14 February 1977: 8.
Johnson, Diane. "Hard Hit Women." New York Review of Books 28 April 1977.
Justice, Keith. "Erica Jong." Bestseller Index. Jefferson: McFarland Co
Inc, 1998: 166.
Lichtenstein, Grace. "Fear of Landing" Washington Post Book World. 21 October
Sutherland, John. "Women's Literature II." Bestsellers: Popular Fiction of the 1970s. London ; Boston : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981: 85.
London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981: 85.