The Bitch is Back

As much has already been written about the cover of Elizabeth Wurtzel's new book, I'll leave readers and oglers to look and judge for themselves. Needless to say, in the extended adolescence that seems to define our culture, such a brilliantly brazen packaging stunt marks its author as the fast-living, fucked-up teenage tart that everyone loves to hate. This is especially true in the great big high school that is New York City, capital of the media world and home to Wurtzel.

In the literary glamour sweepstakes, Wurtzel is now a two-time winner (or is that loser?). For her 1994 memoir, Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, Wurtzel posed in affectless, strung-out grunge glory, appearing not so different from the CKOne models she mocks in her new book. Apparently that first photo--er, book--was sufficient to command a $500,000 advance for her latest title, Bitch: In Defense of Difficult Women (Doubleday). One has to wonder where Wurtzel will go next, having bared a slice of midriff for her memoir and posed topless for a work of nonfiction. Will we get a full-frontal nude shot if she turns out a full-on novel?

To be fair, Wurtzel can be a lively and engaging writer, and reading this cleverly coined "bitchography" is a lot like listening to a know-it-all girlfriend serve up celebrity dish and amateur film analysis along with a multitude of tossed-off opinions. For instance, in a chapter concerning Nicole Brown Simpson, Wurtzel goes on and on and on about the whole O.J. trial--like we need this--then takes a lengthy detour to discuss what it did for Geraldo's career (and Kato Kaelin's), all on the way to going in-depth with Nicole herself. We never find out if O.J.'s ex did, in fact, qualify as a bitch, and if so, how this figured into the tragedy--though we do know that Wurtzel found Nicole incredibly beautiful and really wishes she had gone to college. Confronted with this kind of pointless rambling in numerous passages over more than 400 pages, I took to muttering, "C'mon bitch, where's the beef?"

Wurtzel offers her thesis in an introduction so full of contradictions it reads like a ping-pong game. On the one hand, she champions bitches as strong women who will behave however they damn well please, no matter the cost. But lest the bitch lifestyle seem too attractive, she observes, somewhat redundantly, that "these bad girls live miserable unfulfilled lives, lives of great style and utter misery." She rails against The Rules, while also admitting that the advice in this how-to-catch-a-man best seller "seems pretty sound to me"; she makes proclamations such as "If a woman is good enough to be good, she is also good enough to be bad."

Yet contrary to the book's subtitle, Wurtzel isn't praising difficult women so much as complaining (whining, some might say) about the difficulties that all women (and sometimes men) face. Her analysis in this respect consists of warmed-over feminist findings from five, 10, 30 years ago that unfortunately still hold true today: Did you realize that men earn more money than women for the same work, and that men age better than women, partly because people are obsessed with beauty? And isn't it so unfair how men who sleep around aren't sluts, but rather studs?

In all, her premise is as conflicted as the larger culture's attitude toward bitches; as Wurtzel rightly acknowledges, the public is equally fascinated by and intolerant of them. By the end of the introduction, the reader has no idea where Wurtzel is going. I only stuck with her because I was supposed to write this--and I'm not the only critic who bitched about whether it was really necessary to read this book in order to review it.

After such a mind-boggling introduction come five lengthy chapters, each with its own poster-woman--from Delilah to Hillary Clinton--and an epilogue-cum-journal-entry confessional in which (surprise) Wurtzel herself is the star. In "Hey Little Girl Is Your Daddy Home?" she takes on Amy Fisher and the problems of adolescent girls in general. The main point, which is hardly original, seems to be that out-of-control teenage girls are treated much worse than their bad-boy counterparts. But it's difficult to understand what is so praiseworthy about a rebellious, frustrated, angry, hormone-addled teen--basically, an average kid--who went over the edge and shot her lover's wife. Maybe there's a special bond between the author and her subject, since Wurtzel quotes passages from My Story, Fisher's tell-all, that describe the teenager's longtime depression.

Turning to other more famously depressed damsels in the next chapter (the mascot this time is the especially sad but not-so-famous suicide, Margaux Hemingway), Wurtzel makes good points about how the culture romanticizes mental illness. Though she successfully emphasizes that mental illness is a terribly ugly, unglamorous thing, she ultimately can't resist giving it a rosy glow, professing admiration for Anne Sexton "making her pain everyone else's problem." In contrasting the aimlessness and ultimate despair of Margaux Hemingway with Sexton and Sylvia Plath, two of Wurtzel's heroines who seemingly did battle with depression via their literary brilliance, the author iterates her belief that beauty and bitchiness alone don't take one very far. "[S]ex is really not much of a weapon in the end," she writes. "You need to have some talent and brains or nothing will work."  

That's just it. Wurtzel projects abundant confidence in her skin-deep qualities and her intellectual capabilities alike--a stance that would be more tolerable if she were delivering the goods, writing-wise. Yet, like collagen plumping up thin lips, Wurtzel injects her rather formless prose with fatty digressions--the shortest of these are encased in em dashes, some of which are almost a paragraph unto themselves--and all of them serve only to allow the author to put in her two cents on a relatively trivial, unrelated topic X while discussing topic Y, and because she's a bitch and this is her book, dammit, you're gonna read about it--in clumsy phrasing that might possibly resemble this sentence. (I have failed if you didn't need to go back and read it again.)

Wurtzel's rhetorical laziness is replicated elsewhere in Bitch. The author, it seems, is a big fan of gathering pop-culture references into lists, rosters, and compendiums. Wurtzel further displays her sensitivity to the zeitgeist by repeatedly quoting such venerable publications as Mirabella, Allure, Vogue, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, etc., even borrowing the headline from a 1996 Esquire article for Bitch's subtitle. All these citations do little but give the book an annoyingly slippery quality, much like the precarious towers of glossies that must fill Wurtzel's office.

Indeed, Wurtzel draws on a sizable pop-culture arsenal, but her deployment technique is more like carpet-bombing than taking accurate and judicious aim. Often her approach amounts to little more than compulsive name-dropping. For example, the writer runs from Russ Meyer to Joan Didion in the space of a few lines, with five other famous folks in between; then moves on to a mini-analysis of Andy Warhol's art. Referring to various portrait subjects, she interjects with characteristic em dashes that "ironically, as icons they were larger than life but as people they seemed so much smaller" (you don't say?). Then, realizing how far afield she's gone, she yanks herself back to the original topic, observing how Warhol's silk screens "always struck me as a way to manage the world, to make it nothing at all like Amy Fisher" (italics mine). And the paragraph isn't even finished yet.

At this point, a reader might justifiably wonder if an editor ever even considered coming within 10 feet of Bitch. In defense of Doubleday, I'll note that, according to Newsweek, Wurtzel's manuscript was a full year late, so the publishers probably said something like "This is gonna be a bitch to edit, let's just get it out the door." Moreover, Wurtzel herself told the same magazine that she was dosing up on speed, Ritalin, and coke while writing the book (she's since gone into rehab).

Knowing this, the scattershot, motor-mouthed style, the constant self-interruptions and contradictions, and the rather dubious proclamations all make perfect sense. On page 288 she writes that "feminism has basically worked," while asserting on page 290 that "feminism has not nearly completed its task." More appallingly, directly after an entire chapter on domestic violence (for which Nicole Brown Simpson is the unfortunate emblem), Wurtzel proclaims in her epilogue that "stories of Edmund Wilson smacking Mary McCarthy in a drunken rage, and then telling her, as she burst into tears, to stop it or he would give her something to really cry about--awful as this sounds, the deep engagement of this sick love sounds comparatively appealing to me."

But enough of my bitching. By page 408 (only six more to go!), when Wurtzel claims that "everything in my past should only have left me blurry, muddy and confused," I was too worn out to raise an eyebrow at her use of the conditional. And in this epilogue, which is basically a turning-30/taking-stock journal entry, Wurtzel also seems to be running out of gas, submitting that "in the end, with so many reasons to be bitter and exhausted, it sometimes feels like embracing life and love is the only answer."

Turning away from bitchiness and culminating in a lengthy summary of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue, the chapter seems to say: All you need is love (pop-culture reference, mine). Wurtzel is groping for grace, and while critics are not inclined to give her much, that doesn't mean she won't sell books. 'Cause you know, that's quite a photo on the cover...

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