Elizabeth Wurtzel Looks Back Harshly

I was born with a mind that is compromised by preternatural unhappiness, and I might have died very young or done very little. Instead, I made a career out of my emotions. And now I am just quarreling with normal.

Elizabeth Wurtzel has written a New York magazine article that looks back harshly at her social life and her writing career of nearly 20 years. The article has created a big buzz, both favorable and highly critical. “I start reading every Elizabeth Wurtzel essay with optimism, like maybe finally she put her talent to writing about something than herself, and by the end of paragraph three that optimism has fled” says Jessa Crispin at Bookslut. “A deliciously hathotic middle-aged whine” says Rod Dreher at the American Conservative. “I like this lady’s style” says David Lat at Above The Law.

Well, whatever you think of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s moral value system, one thing’s for sure: she’s a dynamite writer. She stirs up strong emotions with sneaky, crafty paragraphs that know exactly what they’re doing. No wonder she’s a lawyer. Here’s how she describes this career:

Most people who think they are practicing law are actually making binders, and my guess is that most people who think they are doing whatever important thing they are doing are making binders. The binders from law firms go to a locker in a warehouse in a parking lot in an office park off an exit of a turnpike off a highway off an interstate in New Jersey, never to be looked at again. No one ever read them in the first place.

The painful self-criticism in this piece — her mixed feelings about never marrying or having children, her ambivalence about her successes and failures as a writer — make it awkward and embarrassing to read, which is probably why so many have mocked the author for writing it. However, I respect writers who are brave enough to appear foolish by writing bleak confessionals.of epic scale. The writers I like best are the ones who have the courage to deliver themselves to us in full — not as heroes but as failed mortals, and to reveal every painful truth. Isn’t this what we love Dostoevsky and Nietzsche for, after all?

I had a long talk with Elizabeth Wurtzel once, back in the Prozac Nation days of the mid-1990s, when she was an A-lister and I was just a newbie bookish webmaster, excited one night to have an opportunity to sit at a table at a downtown club and mingle with some literati. Elizabeth Wurtzel was holding court at one table, and doing so in a very entertaining and generous way, When she heard my name she immediately asked if I had taken it from Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev (indeed, in a way, I had) and then called for attention so she could describe the plot of this novel to everybody at the table in effusive detail, which she proceeded to do.

Reading her latest New York Times essay, she depicts herself as having been pretty strung out during the Prozac Nation craze. All I remember is a very smart and energetic woman who wanted to talk about an old favorite novel. Why criticize Elizabeth Wurtzel for this New York Magazine piece? She’s only doing what a true writer does — telling us the truth.

7 Responses

  1. I’ve had this perception of
    I’ve had this perception of Wurtzel as a pay attention to meee type. Good to hear she knows her books – it gives her persona weight.

  2. I do think that’s the running
    I do think that’s the running line on her — but I guess I’m thinking, aren’t most writers writing for attention, one way or another? At least she’s doing so openly, and with some insight.

  3. ..took a read of the arcticle
    ..took a read of the arcticle..dang, her eyes drew me in. that’s a serious look she’s got. full of regret. which she wrote about. her way of living is very rewarding in the moment–she’s probably forgotten most of the good times. maybe she forgot you. she should be a book writer from here on out. 5 hours a day, every day. weekends, holidays, etc. if she did that, she would write a classic before she died. maybe. never heard of her, but she ain’t scared to write her truths and opinions. i like that…

  4. Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation is a
    Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation is a book I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to. My general complaint about her writing is that it can be a little hard to read a work that is filled with so many phrases that use “I”. Certainly an interesting state of existence for the person living it, I’m sure.

    Some of the bits in the recent David Foster Wallace biography involve Wurtzel, and she’d always been rumored to be the basis for his “The Depressed Person” — http://harpers.org/wp-content/uploads/HarpersMagazine-1998-01-0059425.pdf — which could just as well have been about Wallace. A line in the biography noted that Wurtzel was the first person DFW knew who had the same level of self-involvement he had (p.203).

    She holds pretty much the same pose here as the one on the cover of Prozac Nation, in a similar flesh-tone t-shirt. All that’s missing is the midriff.

  5. Thanks for this. I’d heard of
    Thanks for this. I’d heard of Prozac Nation, but really never had known of Elizabeth Wurtzel as a writer. 

    I thought Prozac Nation was a non-fiction work examining the widespread use of antidepressant drugs and their deleterious effects. I thought it was like Fast Food Nation or some such. I didn’t know it was a personal work of literature. 

    Of course the photo here struck me first. I thought it was the actress from one of the Star Trek series. The one without whom Obama would never have been elected. 

    I was intrigued by this write-up and read the piece you linked to. 

    I agree with you. She’s a good writer. I may go read Prozac Nation or something else by her. 

    I also read the Wikipedia entry on her. I think there may be another level to the criticism she gets. In the piece you linked and in other writings she has voiced conservative opinions.  About things that had nothing to do with “I” writing. 

    There’s so much dross and dreck published that it’s easy to miss the gold that does exist, so thanks for pointing her out. 

    And thanks to Jason for the Harpers link (although I’ve tried reading Wallace enough times to accept my non-impressed opinion of him. I do surely respect his ambition and ability to produce. And really appreciate and commend him for his understanding of molecular pharmacology).

  6. Before Prozac Nation, all of
    Before Prozac Nation, all of the personal accounts of depression I read either lacked honesty, or the author lacked the ability to communicate despair. On that note, no one can fully communicate in writing what mental or physical pain feels like in reality, but Elizabeth comes pretty darn close.

    And yes, there is a sense of narcissism in PN, and also in her current essay, but so what. I mean, isn’t that the point? After all, we’re reading her because she “knows” and we don’t—although some of us do.

  7. It’s amazing how many
    It’s amazing how many “authorities” have weighed in on one stinking magazine article. The depth of the message has been missed by most media! – YOU have the most marvelous quote: “she’s a dynamite writer. She stirs up strong emotions with sneaky, crafty paragraphs that know exactly what they’re doing” YES – LEVI, YOU GOT IT!

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