A few weeks ago, Elizabeth Wurtzel — legendarily melodramatic writer of the bestselling memoir Prozac Nation — put out an essay with New York Magazine with the tagline “Elizabeth Wurtzel confronts her one-night stand of a life.” She was her classic self: complaining lots, making overstatements like “I believe all women who are supported by men are prostitutes,” essentially saying that people who are trying to hold together well-rounded middle class lives are boring, and inevitably, casually mentioning her hotness. In no time at all, the article was loaded with almost 600 comments. People said it was “narcissistic,” “rambling,” and “pathetic.” Almost as fast, bloggers started to post their reactions and I’m yet to see one that was laudatory. Slate’s headline was, “Confessional Writing Hits Bottom,” Jezebel’s was, “Elizabeth Wurtzel At 45: Sadder Than Depression.”
Most recently, for the New Yorker, Meghan Daum wrote a slightly less damning, though still critical response:
For aspiring writers kicking around New York City in the nineteen-nineties—I was one—Wurtzel was an object of scorn, admiration, lust, mockery, awe, and, most of all, envy. (I remember being very proud of my twenty-four-year-old self for coining the phrase ‘prosaic notion.’) We resented her for being such a famous and hot little mess, yet we couldn’t help but begrudgingly admire her ability to parlay her neuroses into financial rewards and a place in the literary scene. We rolled our eyes at her second book, “Bitch,” a treatise on sexually manipulative women for which Wurtzel had received an enormous advance and on whose dust jacket she appeared topless with her middle finger extended. Still, Wurtzel was a testament to the power of “the personal as professional,” and a lot of us wished we had the courage and chutzpah to make, as Wurtzel describes it, ‘a career out of my emotions.
I appreciate that Meghan tries to look on the bright side of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s alleged unlikability. But she seems to be implying that the singular positive side to Wurtzel’s unlikability is that she has “chutzpah” and is willing to take chances that less prideful but more deserving writers don’t. It’s a backhanded compliment — that Wurtzel’s one talent is her willingness to hang up her integrity to work an industry that is unfair to honest or actually-good writers. That anybody could do what Wurtzel does, if only they were as shameless as she is willing to be.
The thing is, and this is something that I want everyone to understand: Elizabeth Wurtzel may — or may not — whore out her emotions and call it literature. But she is a GREAT WRITER. Why is it that everybody is able to get quickly upset about the daring things that Wurtzel says?
Because her writing TOOK them. She used language so clearly, compellingly, and vividly that people forgot they were reading and jumped straight to indignation. She is one of the best wordsmiths of our time. Also, Bitch is absolutely not a treatise on “sexually manipulative women.” That claim is a regrettable case of pigeonholing, and of book-cover-judging. Bitch is cascading, complex, and explores a number of varying feminist perspectives. It is one of the most underrated feminist texts of our time. Said it once, I will say it a thousand times: Bitch is a near-holy tome and could change the face of feminism if more women read it, and read it more than once.
But Elizabeth Wurtzel brings out the bitchy high school girl in everybody. Writers and readers alike. They all love to hate on her. Want to know why?
It’s because humans are generally repulsed by that kind of extreme, self-indulgent openness. It’s needy. Most people despise needy people. To most people, that kind of neediness comes off as shameless and demanding. Being presented with a needy person provides a perfect opportunity to reject them, and being rejecting is a confidence boost that everybody wants a shot at having.
What nobody wants to do is take a moment to reflect on why another person’s emotional nakedness repulses them. It might provoke too much self-reflection and god knows that’s the last thing everybody wants to do. Her openness invokes a kind of sadistic, bloodlusting reaction. It’s actually kind of like Marina Abramovic when she stripped down and made herself passive, and over time the crowd started reveling in the freedom to assault her. Wurtzel displays her huge, disgusting weaknesses with so much pride and strength that everyone feels challenged by it and wants to tear it down, throw salt on the wounds of someone who is infuriatingly strong as they’re claiming to be dying.
People wrote that she is “self-indulgent,” “just wants to be bohemian,” and is “entitled.” Those values and characteristics may be seen in her work. But where are you seeing these values and characteristics? In her work. She isn’t a rich, whiny, pseudo-bohemian socialite who demonstrated an off-putting attitude in a face-to-face conversation. She is a working writer — working to write the words that made reader feel this way. It entailed intellect and effort to create a written persona that reads as spoiled. If you want to say, “that wasn’t persona — she sucks!” Well, it still requires intellect and effort for a writer to render him or herself clearly and accurately. So it’s not a mistake that her paragraphs induced strong feelings in audiences. That was the plan. As a writer, she just played everyone like a fiddle!
Why else do people love to hate her? Because beyond the grotesqueness of her needy-girl content, she has an unconventional style. She doesn’t write like the neat, crisp MFA-robots that almost exclusively get published today. She once wrote, “I want to write like rock and roll,” and she succeeds. Her words are an Elizabeth Wurtzel-specific brand. It’s like you’re reading bipolar on a page. It’s exciting. It’s convincing. She has style and people feel attacked by it. Guess what — that’s successful writing. And other writers are pissed, rightly so. Because she’s unforgettable. They might be good, but her work is unforgettable. Like it or not, that’s the kind of quality that makes a writer an icon.
And, honestly, everyone hates her because not only is she getting attention for a unique form of talent that is so strong that it comes off as aggressive, but she is attractive. She is a very good-looking woman. And she knows it. Girls aren’t supposed to know when they’re pretty! Girls are not supposed to be self-aware! Not to mention, nobody likes when a girl is pretty and smart. We’ve been taught that a girl leans one way or the other. She’s trampling on two domains! She’s ruining it for the rest of us!
People’s reactions to Elizabeth Wurtzel are like a Rorschach test. It’s also like high school. Which maybe is why she is a good writer to read when you’re in high school.
And in high school (or at Sarah Lawrence, where I went), when the girls are being mean, you try to tell yourself:
They’re just jealous! They just can’t handle me!
And I’m heartened, because in the case of Elizabeth Wurtzel, I see that it’s true.