Popular mythology sometimes confuses the products of a process with its causes, mistaking the symptoms of a condition for its genesis. Just as some people think that Frankenstein is the name of the monster instead of the name of the monster's creator, so there are those who believe that Erica Jong's novel ''Fear of Flying'' (1973) was responsible for the sexual revolution of the late '60s and early '70s.
Jong's influence upon the general public can be compared with that of Cosmopolitan magazine under the direction of Helen Gurley Brown. One of the quickest ways of gaining an audience is by appearing to present something new about a subject everyone is already interested in (themselves, for example), while in fact you are only telling people what they want to hear - what they already know.
A formula for con artists? Not always. Indeed, it is the relative ''sincerity'' of writers like Jong, Brown, et al. that accounts for much of their appeal. For, not only do scads of fuzzy-minded readers think that Erica Jong founded the ''sexual revolution,'' but so - on some level - does Erica Jong. Speaking through her insufficiently fictional alter ego, Isadora Wing (heroine of ''Fear of Flying,'' ''How to Save Your Own Life,'' and ''Parachutes & Kisses''), she modestly confesses how tough it is to be ''saddled with the responsibility of being a guru to others.''
In Jong's case, ironic though this may seem, sincerity may be the key to what's wrong with her books as well as what's right with them. Beginning with what's right (a smaller category): Jong's sincerity is reflected in the expressiveness of her writing: There is a kind of verve to it, the gusto that comes when an egotist writes about him- (or her-) self. Jong is clearly her own favorite subject: She loves her subject and communicates a kind of frothy narcissism to the reader.
Jong also takes herself pretty seriously. This is already the beginning of what's wrong, but it is also another reason for her popularity. Her self-immersion mirrors the narcissism of readers who identify with her and who want to believe in her romantic fantasies.
What's wrong with her fantasies? If you are a certain kind of feminist, you will probably disagree with Jong's stereotyped idea of sex, which seems to be drawn from centuries of books like ''Fanny Hill.'' If you are a moralist of the sterner sort, you may well disapprove of a heroine whose life is devoted to ego-gratification and thrill-seeking. But Jong herself asks to be judged aesthetically and as a cultural phenomenon - a sign of the times.
Her appeal to the standards of art is explicit in her frequent digressions about the role of the artist and implicit in the veritable Norton's Anthology of literary quotations with which she's bestrewn her work. If you are a cultural environmentalist, dismayed by the proliferation of literary junk food that tries to pass itself off as artistic haute cuisine, your mind will boggle at the sheer shallowness and conceit of a novel like ''Parachutes & Kisses.''
Isadora Wing is now approaching 40, divorced from her third husband, and still looking for Prince Charming. Having discovered, through the failure of her third marriage, that it was pointless to have chosen a man six years her junior, Isadora now seeks perfect bliss with a man 14 years her junior.
''All my life,'' (she confesses to him) ''I've suffered about not being a good girl - regretted my marriages, my travels, even my books - because they don't conform to some silly middle-class Jewish childhood notion of what a good woman ought to do!''
''You're the best woman in the world,'' Bean said, ''don't you know it? You're even the best mother, setting your daughter the best possible example....''
''You're right!'' Isadora said with great bravado, but in her heart, she still nourished the little worm of doubt that perhaps, the naysayers were right ... perhaps even Bean would someday betray her.
But, not to worry: Isadora takes heart, envisioning a brighter future for her daughter (and herself):
She would know her gifts and seize the fruits of them. She would be beautiful , kind, burning with talent, and full of the courage required to follow the talent to the dark place where it always leads.
Wherever it leads, one somehow doubts that it leads to anything remotely resembling self-knowledge, let alone self-criticism. Insofar as there is sincerity in Isadora's hopes, it is the sincerity of a greedy child who's not afraid to ask for another piece of cake. Nor do her vague misgivings really constitute a dark night of the soul: So tiny are her doubts that their nagging is scarcely audible above the rising chorus of self-gratulation. Isadora's self-absorption is finally uninteresting, because she substitutes self-justification for self-analysis.
As a cultural phenomenon, Jong is a sign of the times - a symptom rather than a cause. To call her a mirror of the times is, however, to give her more artistic credit than she merits. A mirror reflects the world in all its rich detail and diversity, faithfully representing large and small, high and low, beauty and squalor, wisdom and folly. Jong's relationship to her times (when it can be discerned through the froth of her narcissism) is more like that of a vacuum cleaner to a Persian carpet. Her novels indiscriminately suck up all the flotsam and jetsam - astrology, Reichian orgones, every undigested platitude and prefabricated controversy ever batted about a television talk show - leaving the intricate patterns and complexities of the real world untouched in their wake. As in the case of a vacuum cleaner, one has to admire the energy, while admitting that a vacuum is still a vacuum.
Jong herself knows the difference between a celebrity (''one- or two-dimensional'') and a true artist (''three dimensions - preferably four or five''). Unfortunately, her latest novel is still no more than the ''true confessions'' of a celebrity. One may believe in her sincerity, but one must question her artistic integrity. It can be a long way from sincerity to truth.