At some point in my mid-teens, I bought a paperback copy of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch at my local independent bookstore, inspired by its subtitle “In Praise Of Difficult Women” more than by any particular familiarity with the content, which ranged from Anne Sexton to The Seduction of Joe Tynan. The book, which draws from many different pop culture media to weave together a tapestry of the ways women women can be complicated, uncompliant, mentally ill, and other ways, considered “bitchy,” is a significant inspiration to my criticism. And it’s meant that even as Wurtzel, who’s written memoirs about her depression and her drug addiction, has spent much of the decade and a half since being awfully difficult herself, I’m always curious to see what she has to say next.
In this case, it’s a messy, very sad essay in New York Magazine about how miserable Wurtzel is, how much she cases intense sensation since it seems to be the only thing she can feel any more, how she’s made decisions that have left her without any safety net, and she claims this is some sort of principle. The piece is an embarrassment, rather than accomplishment, but a compulsively readable one—whatever you think of the content, a sentence like “I knew David Foster Wallace pretty well*, and he was pretty smart, but David Boies makes David Wallace look like, well, some other lesser David, maybe David Remnick,” is tremendous in its audaciousness and construction—and over at Slate, my fellow columnist Amanda Marcotte wrote that the piece is “as lengthy as it is incoherent, so the question arises: Did Nolan pay off Wurtzel to make his point for him?”
The Nolan to which she refers is Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan, who recently wrote a piece called “Journalism Is Not Narcissism,” in which he implored young writers not to mistake confessional writing for the stuff of a career. “By plundering your own life for material, you are not investing in yourself as a writer; you’re spending the principal,” he wrote. “Soon, it will all be used up. There is nothing more painful to watch than a writer desperately grasping at ever less-important aspects of their own lives in order to make word counts, until they must simultaneously eat lunch and be writing about eating that lunch at the same time.” Putting aside the fact that there are very few writers other than Wurtzel and Susan Shapiro, a memoirist and professor Nolan uses as his lead, who make a living, or who want to, solely by dining out on the lunch that they are simultaneously eating and writing about, there are more substantive objections to the idea that reporters should segregate themselves from their stories.
Ann Friedman, who published my favorite long form story of the last year, a story about a woman in Alaska trying to obtain an abortion in which her experience is the incredibly compelling vehicle for an exploration of the policy reasons it’s so difficult for her to get the care she needs, argued in response to Nolan that journalism is always shaded by perspective, and it’s a matter of revealing that perspective honestly and carefully, rather than covering it up. “I cringe every time I read a New York Times story in which the reporter awkwardly refers to herself as ‘a visitor.’ Really? You can’t just say “provided me with directions to her Craftsman bungalow”? Please,” Friedman wrote. ” journalists were always a part of the story. Why not just own up to the fact that three-dimensional humans are doing this work? We have always brought our personal histories and political opinions and casual biases with us while reporting. We just tried to pretend we weren’t with stupid stylistic conventions.”
Another thing that struck me while reading their pieces is the reminder that confessional journalism can serve as a means to reveal that experiences people once thought were singular are actually common, and not a cause for fear or shame. As much as Nora Ephron didn’t like her consciousness-raising group when she went in the seventies, her writing about her breasts and her sex fantasies, and about writing for Cosmopolitan, and about feminine hygiene sprays that were harming women mattered because they spoke aloud things that previously weren’t spoken of at all. Making people realize that problems they thought were personal are actually political and cultural is powerful work.
And that’s why Wurtzel’s essay comes across as intermittently powerful and infuriating and ramblingly bizarre. It’s not about that synthesis, that call to action. It’s aimed at making the rest of us feel like we are a herd of mundanes while Elizabeth Wurtzel is singular and special. “But this is it for me. I am a free spirit,” she writes. “I do not know any other way to be. No one else seems to live as I do. In a world gone wrong, a pure heart is dangerous.” Maybe. But it’s also a cliche, and not nearly as special or rare as Wurtzel seems to think it is. Young journalists should get the same lesson in confessional writing as they do in all else: why does it matter to anyone but you? The answer that they’ll want to consume your special snowflakeness is almost never true, and even more rarely enough.
*Apparently, Wallace’s “The Depressed Person” is about Wurtzel, and boy does that make things click into place.