Pussy! A Progression! Essay 2

By Nikki Darling

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Daughter of Wurtzel: In Defense of Elizabeth Wurtzel and Feminist Confessional Writing
 

 
I like Erase Errata; I really love Erase Errata, because it is so easy to not like them. – Nikki Darling, Live From New York, The LA Record
 
As if being miserable every day, six days a week, walking some asshole publisher’s dog and picking up it’s crap while balancing a tray of Starbucks on my arm makes me more of a grownup. If that’s being responsible then I like living by the seat of my pants. Besides, what’s the point of doing some horrible job that you hate if what you really want to do is something entirely different? I want to write, so what the fuck?– Nikki Darling, Live From New York, The LA Record
 
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Narcissism has long been the foil of a good lady. One does not gaze into the mirror or hang pictures of themselves in their own home. One does not flounce their accomplishments, or express bubbly pride win they win. A lady is humble; a lady is a good sport. Ladies take the high road, they work hard, and they play fair. But what about women? What should women do? Apparently, according to our current culture, the same thing. One does not quote oneself, well, unless, that is, they have two balls and a cock.
 

 
Elizabeth Wurtzel, has a vagina. And thank god. The fact is Wurtzel’s writing pushes us to ask those most basic of questions, the ones that determine who we let into our life and what type of person we want to be; what does it mean to be difficult and challenging, unhinged and honest? What are we, the public, comfortable with when it comes to women expressing those most base and unflattering of life’s darkest emotions? The messy and embarrassing stuff? Shouldn’t women have pride? Yes, of course, but what if our definition of pride is actually limited and confining? What if it is rooted in puritanical moralism?
 
We have tsk tsk’d certain women into shameful silence, vaginally castrating those who dare speak the problem of female mania, mental illness. It’s been happening since women took pen to paper, since the word hysterectomy was taken from hysteria. It bubbled up in the sixties when women were being hospitalized in sanitariums at alarming rates. Electro shock therapy, Francis Farmer, the list is endless.  We have condemned a myopic worldview by criticizing what we view as “indulgent” behavior or in this case “bad” writing.
 
Whether you like her or not Wurtzel’s work is strong and affective. Her sentences crackle with frank strangeness. There is an eager need to confess all, not for the benefit of the reader, but for the benefit of the author herself, a desperate rush for survival. Each word typed is a breath taken, each sentence a lap against an unending tide. Take for instance this passage from January’s much, maligned New York Magazine piece (more on it later).
 
By the time I got to college, I had already written for Seventeen, and I’d done an internship at New York that I had been promised would be fetching coffee and filing manuscripts, but I had managed to do a couple of short pieces on Bret Easton Ellis and the pretty stucco bungalows of the Rockaways. The only thing that made my unbearable depression at all bearable through four years at Harvard was knowing I had to get better so I could tell the story. I was in a strange mental habitat where I paradoxically was both certain I would not live another day feeling as awful as I did, but I still had access to a vista onward that made me want to live forever. 
 
The last line alone is a gorgeous mouthful: a vista onward that made me want to live forever. Wurtzel is not a bad writer, far from it. Hers is a slippery fun language that teases and uncoils from the basket like a cobra ready to bite. She isn’t friendly or demure she is exacting and lyrical. The words are hungry for readers and she pulls us toward them with a captivating dance before they strike.
 
There has been a lot of sputtering lately about what “journalism” means and whether or not we can use the almighty ‘I’ when writing it.  Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote a particularly nebbish piece, Journalism is Not Narcissism that Slate’s Victorian corseted, Amanda Marcotte in her own attack, on Wurtzel’s New York piece (soon) correctly identified as having caused a “kerfuffle” on the Internet.  Nolan’s piece was published a week before Wurtzel’s but many of her critics used it as fodder to support their arguments about why she is an aging, angry, talentless hack.
 
Nolan states:
 
The demoralizing truth is that there is a huge appetite for first-person essays of this sort. The pages of Salon, and Slate, and Thought Catalog, andXO Jane, and women’s magazines, and lowbrow-masquerading-as-highbrow publications like parts of the New York Times, and Gawker Media are absolutely overflowing with them. At their very best, they offer some amount of insight learned through experience. Mostly, they offer run of the mill voyeurism tinged with the desperation of attention addiction. For those who own the publications, they’re great—they bring in the clickety-clicks. But for the writers themselves, they are a short-lived and ultimately demeaning game. They are a path that ends in hackdom. And young writers who’ve paid good money to attend journalism classes should not be set on that path.
 
The demoralizing truth. Oh my! What Nolan meant was untalented writers are getting published and being asked to talk about themselves while doing it. Writing like any art form is subjective, the problem however with first person confessional writing is not that it exists but that across the board for all types of genres the Internet has reframed the structure of publishing. Or rather, the cracks in the wall are letting more people in. What kept bad confessional writing and journalism at bay prior to the Internet was that the powers that be, editors, publishers, other staff writers, slowed the whole mess down. The output was simply easier to manage. If there is indeed a “huge appetite” for confessional writing its worth asking why, rather than condemning the entire enterprise. The Internet ensures that just as many poorly written in depth news features are published as personal essays. It’s not as if Mr. Nolan can’t still read the New York Times or Washington Post each morning on his iphone like any other stuffy old coot. No one is keeping the nut graph away from the hardcore.
 
As writer, editor Ann Friedman wrote on her blog, in response to Nolan’s piece:
 
But then again, 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.
 
Let’s be honest, Elizabeth Wurtzel isn’t a journalist or a critic, not in the traditional sense, she may have started as one many years ago but hasn’t inhabited that role in quite some time. The criticism lobbied at Wurtzel isn’t about the quality of her writing or the fact that she is a confessional writer posturing as journalist, no, the problem with Wurtzel is the content of her work. What she has to say about herself that is so enraging to such a large group of readers. Just as many right-wing Republican’s deny their dislike of Barack Obama has to do with the fact that he’s African American, many readers are unable to see past their own noses, their tightly wound misogyny. What so offends people like Nolan and Marcotte is that Wurtzel is an unhappy, challenging, intelligent woman. Her voice is both frivolous and urgent. Hers is the ultimate refusal to concede or disappear. Wurtzel reminds us that sometimes feminism can look unattractive and sullen, petulant and motivated only by personal gain; the freedom to feel good, to be happy, for no reason other than the fact that you are not.
 
Wurtzel might have private social passions, AIDS, poverty, who knows what, but on paper, in print, she is her only cause.
 
Released in 1994 Prozac Nation turned memoir on its head.  It was the first book to give a face to Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, Kathleen Hannah’s riot grrls and the new era of SSRI’s. Wurtzel was young and depressed. She was also on the cover, midriff exposed, pouting, some sort of modern day Frankenstein, an image more likely resembling the original monster of Mary Shelley’s imagining. A young female author who also expressed malaise using the brilliant metaphor of a man made misfit, one that was oafish and spurned by society, one that was much softer and kind hearted than the villagers were willing to accept.
 
What Wurtzel’s critics fail to notice or mention is that the author herself exists in a swamp of self-loathing. She has never denied that her world is small and often dark. It is a daily struggle to show up for life, and that struggle coupled with the relentless narcissism that comes with mental illness is the captivating line that Wurtzel lights up so brilliantly, that she expresses so clearly and concisely. And for women not accustomed to finding their own maddening voice reflected back at them, discovering Wurtzel’s work can be a joyous relief. From Nation:
 
What I wouldn’t do to be Alice climbing through the looking glass, taking one of those pills that makes you small, so small. What I wouldn’t do to be less.
 
Confessional feminist writing has its roots in Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, and other essayists and New Journalists employ similar techniques when telling their stories. A Room Of Ones Own, Ariel, The Awful Rowing Toward God, are just a few of the genre’s seminal texts. Susanna Kayson’s beautiful account of her own institutionalization in Girl Interrupted brought a three dimensional understanding of the 1960’s cuckoo bird. Humanizing mental illness and the women who suffer from it.
 
This desire to connect with the reader, the effort to shed whatever ails the author, creates a bridge of two-way communication that is intoxicating and satisfying to consume. The writer simply isn’t communing with her reader, she is spilling her soul, telling the reader that yes, this is a confession, because you are just as important to my moment as these words are to you. In the confession is the purge, the reader receives the insides willingly, taking the parts that are familiar and using them to foster her own inner strength. For women this genre of writing has been of particular value as many women in their daily lives are cut off from expressing their true power or feeling. They are denied agency in the day to day just for being women, but in the words they are free, they are able to express all the parts of themselves they have been encouraged to deny.
 
But then of course, these women, the ones who speak out and the ones that read with eager greediness, are often labeled as difficult. Writers such as Cat Marnell, whose honest portrayal of drug addiction and mental illness has inspired her own ire from the critical mass “I like to exploit the personal. Take your mess; make it your message. Then mainstream it! Make it ‘POP.’” The controversial Marnell said recently when discussing her work. It is an apt description of the thrill and noise that her words invoke.
 
Wurtzel, being a difficult woman herself understands this double edged truth and more than likely led to the release of her second book, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, one of the most exciting and progressive feminist texts of the last twenty years.  Here Wurtzel confronts head on the exact thing she herself has been repeatedly accused of: being bad. Wurtzel however takes the word rearranges it and reassigns it’s meaning. Bad is where it’s at, she says. Of course what she means is that feminist resistance is in how honest you are willing to let yourself be, how much you are willing to admit. Bitch however is not a confession but an indictment, a critique of the critics, a celebration of women who have been historically “difficult” otherwise known as female complainers. Those unwilling to accept the quietude of lady like advancement.
 
As Wurtzel writes in a brief but lovely ode to her literary godmother, the woman who took feminist confessional writing to new dazzling and dizzying levels of brutal honesty and beauty, Sylvia Plath:
 
In The Bell Jar and a good bit of her poetry, Plath is the voice of one who wants to be allowed to want- she wants luxury of not one desire, but many.
 
And (finally) the piece in question: Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts Her One Night Stand of A Life. Published by New York Magazine, a place she once interned, the writer finds herself at a crossroads, does she continue to play it as it lays or will she pull up her boot straps and “grow up”? At 44 she seems to say, she has grown up. She calls her choices larks, the things that have been stacked on top of one another to form her unconventional life. She declares that marriage is for the common, that relying on a man makes you a prostitute. That she has only kissed out of desire. She inflames those who’ve jumped through hoops of fire to win the prizes of life, prizes Wurtzel so casually dismisses. Don’t cry for Elizabeth Wurtzel, she never asked you to, nor does she want your pity, she’ll take your anger, she wants it actually. More though, she wants you dear lady, to be angry too, and to demand that you foil your own ambitions, if only to experience a new path, one that has not been paved with happiness, one that comes from hard work, but one that is yours and that you own.
 
I is the window to the soul. I is in the eye of the beholder. These are fighting words.
 

 

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