Diann Blakely's Reviews > Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women

Bitch by Elizabeth Wurtzel
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Dec 03, 2011

Read from September 01, 1999 to December 01, 2011

Perhaps the less-than-rapturous reception of BITCH had to do with its timing: the proliferation of memoirs was already appearing on various literary pundits’ “Ten Worst Things About the Nineties” lists. Some argued that the form’s renewed popularity proved how pandemic contemporary America’s “culture of narcissism,” to use Christopher Lasch’s phrase, had become. Others point accusingly at a population of readers—and writers—who’ve grown too dimwitted or lazy to bother with fictional constructs like character development, plot, and complex points of view. But I think there's something different at work: our quest for authenticity. And as Wurtzel makes clear by her title and cover photograph, except for a few highlights in her coiffeur, no artificial ingredients are allowed here.

The form and structure are one with their subject: the push-pull created by cultural misogyny. Even Wurtzel--obviously--wants to appear in a public embrace of her own beauty and sexuality, but she's aware that the photograph is a "cover" in the most literal sense. She's highly unlikely to end up like Nicole Brown Simpson or Margaux Hemingway, two of her subjects, the former too-long complicit in her abuse at the hands of her famous husband, and the latter's fall into madness, various forms of what Louise Kaplan called "female perversions," and finally the decision to end her own life.

BITCH's construction and the aforementioned melding were wildly misunderstood; in fact, fresh fusillades--anti-memoir, anti-Wurtzel, and, most to the point if unrecognized, anti-female--were fired off immediately from reviewers who slammed the book as “self-indulgent," as many had PROZAC NATION. But this renewed criticism seemed odd, since BITCH deliberately and obviously expands the concerns of Wurtzel’s earlier chronicle of her own depression to include the intellectual and social forces that shape the female self. Others misunderstood the book as a cultural study and thus found the subjective experience annoying. Yet one of the major links between the author’s capacious, intricately connected meditations on “difficult women” is provided by Wurtzel’s own life; and the book's shape conforms precisely to post-feminist theory, which argues that the rising action / climax / falling action / denouement is patterned not on universal truth but on male sexual response.

Yet memoir is often less than compelling when its author plods on that already worn-down road of tradition narrative or dramatic structure. (How, pray, does Shakespeare avoid it?--subplots and characters so paradoxical in their humanity that they travel switchbacks or undergo, in the case of other characters, sea changes.) Forcing BITCH's copious material, which ranges from biblical hermeneutics to grunge, into any other pattern would have been, at best, a case of date-rape. In fact, it's interesting to note that a significant majority of the aforementioned criticized memoirs have not only been written by women but stray beyond the predictable literary parameters. And BITCH brings with it a number of other problems endemic to the author and her stylistic treasons: the probably-unsettling-to-some erudition (she's a girl!, after all); the blazing scorch of her intelligence; and the disavowal of any flattering shadows to fall across any of the darkness some would prefer to remain gently draped across our cultural misogyny.

Wurtzel’s training for the task includes not only 12 years of orthodox Jewish schooling but also a prize-winning early career in music journalism, which began during her undergrad days at Harvard. Nevertheless, BITCH would be a substantially lesser accomplishment if Wurtzel’s intellect weren’t complemented by an enviable gift for metaphor. Tropes—“The Blonde in the Bleachers” and “There She [the Crazy Woman] Goes Again,” to name two—become archetypal sources from which spring each chapter’s complexly associative patterns of thought. Their characters include Delilah, Courtney Love, Anne Sexton, Amy Fisher, Lot’s daughters, Liddy and Hillary, Sylvia Plath, Ingrid Bergman, Joyce Chopra, and Stevie Nicks, to cite a handful. The author joins them neither because of narcissistic lapses, nor simply because she feels equally vulnerable to the cultural forces that damaged, and in some cases destroyed, these women. Nor does she hold herself any less accountable for using whatever power she retains to combat these forces and to give meaningful shape to her own life.

(originally published, although in a slightly different form, in the NASHVILLE SCENE)
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