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My Favorite Mistake: Erica Jong On Suing Hollywood

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What has been your favorite mistake?

I've made so many!

What crossed your mind when you were first asked about this interview?

When I was asked, I wondered "What is the biggest professional mistake I've made in my life?" I mean, I've made many personal mistakes, like marrying a schizophrenic...(laughs).

But I think the biggest mistake I made in my professional career was suing a movie company, a producer, and my agent. (laughs.)

And I think that was a really bad mistake. And this is something that connects with the Writer's Guild strike, as well. An individual artist cannot really get satisfaction from a huge conglomerate - they have lots more money than you do, they can lawyer you to death, and you never really win it.

So any stuff that artists are going to do, they have to do collectively. But if you go to court (individually), and you sue a movie company, and an agent, and your producer, for the rest of your life, you're thought of as a troublemaker. And they don't want to make movies of your books.

Not to be irreverent, but was that really the first time you'd been called a troublemaker?

(Laughs) Well, I also thought I was gonna change everything for writers. I was going to give writers control over their work! You know, the French have something called droit morale, where you can't buy a book as if it were a sack of sugar, and take possession of it. The author of the book has to approve the movie that's made from her book.

So the writer always owns it.

You always own the content. And it reverts after a certain period of time, and I would say that is ideal. I later became president of the Authors' Guild and I had tried to introduce this right for all writers. And I had a very difficult time doing so.

Did you do this in your role as president of the Authors' Guild, or in personal litigation?

No, in personal litigation, when I was very, very young, and Fear of Flying had been taken over by a woman who was a drug addict, and who was not a director, but decided she wanted to direct it herself. And I sued to stop her, and get the rights back, and it cost me a fortune, and I didn't win, and it really hurt me badly for the rest of my career.

But there is the law of intellectual property, is that the way you wanted people to think about writers' work? That writers are always paid for specific approved use of their work? Like a patent, in a sense, the way you have for any other idea?

Absolutely. I think that our laws of intellectual property are not nearly as forward looking as what exists in Europe and exists in the Berne Convention. And I think a writer should be able to have some sort of control over the seriousness with which the work is done. The buyer can't just be at liberty to change everything.

So, getting back to why this personal litigation was a mistake for you. It was obviously costly, professionally and financially, but there really was no way to go about this the right way, was there?

No. I was...young, I had just had a big best seller in Fear of Flying, I was out in California in the 70's amid producers who were doing a lot of blow, and people who were, you know, very canny and savvy, and drug-addled. And I thought I was going to change them all by filing this landmark suit. And of course I got creamed! (laughs).

Has it changed the way you did things subsequently?

Well, first of all (if I hadn't made that mistake,) I don't think I would have become president of the Authors' Guild and tried to improve the lot of all authors.

So you derived inspiration from your mistake?

I derived inspiration from it. I understood that the rules had to change for all of us, that we couldn't do it individually. That certain things must be done collectively. And I think that that's a good lesson to learn. It also humbled me. I had just had a big bestseller, I thought I was invulnerable and invincible. And I discovered that no one is. And, it made me much more humble, I think.

How do you walk that fine line between humility and just plain old cynicism and passivity? I understand the caution of not giving too much of oneself but any kind of activism really requires a certain amount of naive hope, doesn't it?

Absolutely. You think you're going to change the world. But there are certain ways to do it.You know, either you go out and you take your grievance and create a revolution, or you attempt to work within the system as you find it. And I think it's very interesting, because we're at a moment in history where it seems that we cannot really get satisfaction unless we change the system that we have politically. So this extends to greater things. Can you change the system and remain peaceful?

Do you mean change things politically or change things in terms of individual rights?

Legally and individual rights. I mean look at the contrast between, let's say, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama says he's going to do away with bickering and two party hatreds, but he's going to end the war in Iraq, he's going to change health care...When I hear him say that, I think, "Naïve." I don't want our first bi-racial President to go out there like Don Quixote on his donkey, and get creamed.

And then I look at Hillary Clinton, who has been so criticized for being a triangulator and a compromiser, but looking at the two of them, I think she's more likely to get things done in our political system than he is.

The other option is to have a revolution and blow everything up. And that usually destroys a whole generation the revolution eats its own children, as did the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution, and you get generations of bloodshed. Better it should be a realistic, pragmatic horse-trade with the other side. Try to reach changes within the system, rather than having two generations of bloodshed.

Don't you think a lot of people find optimism more difficult? I mean, optimism really takes a lot of creativity, whereas pragmatism is kind of more reflexive, isn't it? Some would say for Barack Obama to go out there in this way, in this cynical political time and to be so optimistic, does take a lot of energy. It doesn't exist on its own. You kind of have to invent it from whole cloth.

Absolutely, I think that's true. And I have a lot of...I have a lot of respect for (Obama). But where I worry is, "will he be able to fulfill the promises?"

And, look you have to CHOOSE your risks, I guess is what I'm saying. If you're an author of controversial books, and you expose female sexuality,

Hypothetically?

I mean ME! (laughs) And you express your most energizing and controversial ideas in your books you have to make up your mind that that is the area in which you're going to be risk-taking. You can't be risk-taking in absolutely every area.

So choose your battles?

Yes. I mean, that's really what I'm saying: I've continued to write books that people get very very angry at and I've never compromised anything I wanted to say in a book, I've never taken out something provocative to please an editor or a publisher.

My writing has remained controversial, and I haven't ever been pragmatic about my writing. Since I've taken the stand of doing controversial work in my writing I don't think I can do it in EVERY other area of my life. Even thought I'm inclined that way -- I always WANT to. But what I've learned is if you want to be controversial in one area of your life you should be pragmatic in other areas.

Many early feminist writers have criticized subsequent generations of being TOO pragmatic, of wanting too much, and of being comparatively comfort-oriented and sacrifice-averse. So I think it's interesting that you seem to be saying "Don't lead a self-destructive life just because you want to lead a passionate one."

I think you said it better than I have. I think when I was younger I was very self-destructive because I was so passionate about political change I felt artists and writers were oppressed - which we are. I felt we paid the price for bringing human kind to its senses. We were expected to live on nothing, endure slings and arrows, and while people who went to work in advertising agencies or in the investment business were not. They were ever promoted upward where as a writer or a movie maker or an actor was ALWAYS auditioning and proving themselves. But there's no way I could have ever gone into any of those other businesses because I am a risk taker. What I learned as I got older is that there were some areas in which you had to be pragmatic.

What advice will you give your grandchildren about this type of risk?

That they should most CERTAINLY take risks. Follow their passions. Pursue what they believe in. But when you're young you can be so passionate that you're efforts are scattered. And you have to focus. Know what you really care about, and go after one thing in a deliberate way. Use your energy wisely.


"My Favorite Mistake" is a biweekly series in which writer Seema Kalia asks various luminaries about the one mistake that taught them the most.

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