Review: Elizabeth Wurtzel, Our #GenX Writer
Elizabeth Wurtzel loomed over my writing life—as she did for many GenXers—from the time she burst on the literary scene in 1994 until her untimely death this year.
In 1994, I was a twenty-one years old aspiring writer the first time I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. I was just graduating college, about to embark on my own career, when I found this raw, loud, unapologetic voice that screamed off the pages. I was transfixed by her writing then, and I continued my love affair with her work as both grew into middle age.
Last year—after a chance encounter with her on Instagram—I decided to go back and re-read (and in some cases, read for the first time) her books. I finished Prozac Nation just a few months before breast cancer would hill her.
Prozac Nation was a sprawling, messy narrative about depression, and drugging children, and loneliness, and fear. But it wasn’t only that. Wutzel’s story was never about victimhood. Her story was about the agency and beauty that came come from brokenness, about the importance of living with reckless vulnerability, and ultimately about her decision to carve out an authentic, honest life where she owned the spaces she lived.
She damn near created the modern, literary, female-driven, confessional memoir—although I’m positive my writing career wouldn’t have gone the way it had if I hadn’t read her work, either.
I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about Wurtzel—and her legacy—in the last month. We’ve settled into the Influencer Age of the Internet, which has given voice to so many people that it’s hard to pierce through the din. But Wurtzel was, before all this mess, the ultimate GenX literary influencer. Smart and fiery, she battled with people in her writing. She named names. She brought receipts. And she didn’t much care if you liked her.
All that is to say that I still find Prozac Nation relevant because she gave a voice the kind of real anxiety and depression that have settled within so many of us. She—and this book—helped make normal the things that we didn’t talk about. And because of who she was—and her voice—she gave us cover to talk about those things ourselves.
Bitch: In Defense of Difficult Women
More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction
If you don’t like Elizabeth Wurtzel’s writing, which was deeply rooted in her personal experience and her unapologetic, raw voice, then More, Now, Again isn’t for you.
Two years after she wrote Bitch, one of the defining Third Wave feminist books, she dropped her addiction memoir, which was a spiritual follow to her best seller Prozac Nation. Only she’s seven years old, a lot more famous, and somehow still lost in the world in her head, an experience anyone with anxiety or depression or addiction understands.
(I used to call it the hamster wheel. When you get it on, you’re running hard to get away but you’re just getting tired and not making progress.)
The best way I can describe this book is as if The Catch in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield sprang to life in the body is the brilliant, beautiful, fiery, damaged writer.
When I sat down to write this review, I went back and read some of what the literary critics wrote at the time. She was—as she often was—excoriated as a narcissist who found her every moment interesting and worthy of commentary.
But, of course, that’s the entire point of anxiety and depression and addiction. Most of us go through life not thinking about each. individual. second. in. the. day. This is we think “time flies when you’re having fun” or wonder why you don’t remember the drive home while you daydreamed.
Wurtzel’s brilliance—and don’t get me wrong, I wanted to throw the book across the room more than once—is that she’s painting a picture of what it means to live in a world in which you never daydream or forget the seconds that go by.
Radical Sanity: Commonsense Advice for the Uncommon Woman
I read Elizabeth Wurtzel‘s Radical Sanity (also published as The Bitch Rules and The Secret of Life in parallel with Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. And, I felt as thought Sanity was the outline that inspired the lengthy, literary essays in Bitch. Where the essays in Bitch stretch on for fifty, sixty, seventy pages (all worth it), Sanity are short nuggets usually no more than two or three pages.
This isn’t to say Sanity isn’t worth the read. I found myself nodding along throughout the book, even though I wasn’t the target audience. But, I couldn’t help but think of several friends who would benefit from reading the snippets, which are less self-help rules and more self-reminders. This isn’t a road map for mental and emotional health; instead, these shorts were meant to remind women, and particularly younger women, that it’s important to take up space–for lots of reasons.
And while I suspect some of the advice, at least as it was presented, may not age well, I found myself asking “What advice from the past really does?” Any experience we try to pass down comes from a world that no longer exists (and, in my opinion, exists mainly so that one person can justify the actions they took at some point).
It’s never a bad time to carve out a little time–and this book is less than one hundred pages so you can finish it in one sitting–and remind yourself that it’s important to be present in making decisions about what you want out of life. Nothing could be more radical than that.
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