Like many gals my age, I read Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” soon after it came out in 1973, even though it was disconcerting to know that my mother was reading it at the same time.

I thought it was entertaining and funny–and Jong struck me as having a real eye, ear–and nose–for the dank, sweaty, smelly underbelly of casual sex, in which you often find out more than you really wanted to know about your supposed lover’s personal hygiene or lack thereof. I laughed out loud quite a bit, and I decided that Jong’s real talent was as a stand-up comedienne. Indeed, I’ve always thought that Jong’s autobiographical narrator, Isadora Wing, was one of the models for the character Elaine on “Seinfeld,” with her hilarious monologues and her series of grossly unsuitable boyfriends. Unfortunately, many women my age seemed to fail to catch the self-deprecating humor in “Fear of Flying,” which they interpreted as a feminist manifesto for flying all right–flying off from their middle-class husbands and children and taking up with characters even less savory than the males Jong had delineated in her book.

A lot later, I dipped into one of Jong’s numerous follow-up autobiographical novels to “Flying” (I can’t remember which one)–and it wasn’t so funny. The book seemed thin and forced and tired–and graphic descriptions of one’s promiscuities no longer seemed a suitable topic for a woman well past her youthful bloom who was also a mother. That was the end of Erica Jong for me, although it was far from the end of those “Flying” follow-ups for Jong.

Now comes one of my favorite reviewers, Cristina Nehring, with a fantastic taketown for the Atlantic(thanks, Arts & Letters Daily) of the latest of those Jong autobiographical follow-ups (and according to Nehring, a nasty piece of work), “Seducing the Demon,” that nicely limns Jong’s transformation from bawdy, self-deprecating humorist to embittered sixty-something virago who uses revelations of long-since-sown wild oats merely to bare her former lovers’ inadequacies and settle extremely old scores:

Who is this heartless woman? Could it really be the late twentieth century’s great defender of erotic love? The woman who claimed, in Fear of Fifty, that she still adored each one of her many ex-partners, that in fact ‘I even love them better than I did when we were together, because now I have more empathy’? Empathy? The only emotion visible in the hodgepodge of Jong’s latest ‘memoir’ is narcissism. All her politics have dwindled to vanity — and a vague sense of aggrievement. Perhaps she feels the human race hasn’t accorded her the adulation she deserves, but where once she was the Feminist Who Loved Men she now comes off as the Slut Who Hates Them. Where once she made some display of solidarity with other women, it is now plain that she dislikes, disregards, and fears them.

Take her attack on female writers her age, or younger. They envy her ‘rich life,’ she tells us glibly, the whole lot of them. She has to kick herself under the table to pay attention to them at dinner parties. That said, she has some advice for them: Be loyal to your sex! Don’t review another woman’s books badly — to do so is a sign of ‘self-hatred!’ Putting aside the gross anti-intellectualism and horde mentality implicit in such a proposition, it is jarring for its hypocrisy. Stand by your sisters, says the career vamp of American letters? (Not content merely to detail, in Seducing the Demon, how she destroyed Martha Stewart’s marriage, Jong also assaults us with all the withering things Stewart’s husband allegedly said about Martha in flagrante delicto.) Don’t hurt other women, says the writer who vociferously spurns her mother, reviles her sisters, and lingers sadistically on how the ‘schoolteacher’ wife of a ‘famous’ Irish poet she ‘f—[ed]’ and discarded in a fancy London hotel sits home and ‘pays [his] bills?’ This person draws the line at a bad book review?
Worst of all, Nehring notes, Jong actually thinks of herself as an accomplished writer, with much to teach the younger generation:
Dream on, Erica. This book — like your last dozen — is amazing only for its mediocrity. It is amazing only for its meanspiritedness, its tedium, its awkward prose, and its stunning self-absorption. Literature can bear a great deal of self-absorption, but Jong may well have overshot the mark. Literary aspiration, at the end of the day, is a limited plot device. Especially in the absence of literary talent. Muses — like men — tend to eschew those who chase them exclusively; single-minded pursuit frightens as often as it flatters them.
The best way to write is to have something to say. For all her aggressive loquacity, Erica Jong has run out of topics. She has run out of interests. She has run out of empathy for other people. And yet the war in which she once fought — the war to reconcile passion with feminism — goes on. The ends are still just. And the stakes are as high as ever.

Of course I’d say that feminism–at least feminism of the hard-line variety–is the enemy of passion. And Jong’s failure to think clearly, as she once was able to do, about the costs that both unfettered passion and irresponsible feminism exact from oneself and others may be the reason why both her imagination and her writing have deteriorated so drastically over the past 33 years.