“I always make a distinction between what’s accurate and what’s true,” says Elizabeth Wurtzel between giant sucking swallows of the night’s special at Book Soup Bistro, soft-shell crab and Blue Lake beans. She eats the beans like a kid eating pasta, drawing them in gradually and leaving a residue of sauce, which adds to the challenge of not thinking about how in Prozac Nation, her 1994 memoir of a girl in pain, she confessed to getting chapped lips from giving so many blowjobs. “The Newsweek thing,” Wurtzel complains of a profile of her that ran in April, “definitely wasn’t true — true meaning it didn’t capture who I am. She made it sound as if I was a deeply disturbed drug addict just barely holding it together. And I don’t think that’s right. As writers go, in terms of personality, I’m very normal.”
Maybe so, but tonight it’s kind of hard to tell. Wurtzel would have me believe that, three weeks into her 15-city book tour, she is not quite herself. That she does not typically talk to waiters as if they’re annoying the shit out of her just because they tell her she was good on Politically Incorrect. That she answers questions straightforwardly, even the hard ones. That she actually stands for one or two things that might have a basis in logic. Earlier, she had an audience of 50 or so huddled in Book Soup’s stifling little annex believing she was nice, even though the size of the crowd insulted her. “I know that lots of people love reading at Book Soup,” she says, “but in general, everywhere I’ve gone on this tour a couple of hundred people have shown up.”
Wurtzel’s new book, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (Double day), hasn’t yet displaced The Man Who Listens to Horses on the New York Times best-seller list, but Wurtzel does have a following. Unfortunately, that does not bode well for feminism as a hot literary ticket: Bitch is not a political manifesto so much as a 434-page howl of solipsistic despair, a howl that began when Prozac Nation became the book every critic loved to hate and too-smart teenage girls devoured like diet pills. If reading Prozac Nation felt a little like rubbernecking at a small but significant crackup on the 405 freeway, Bitch is like watching an Amtrak passenger train careen over the side of a rain-sodden bluff into the Pacific Ocean. From the author’s airbrushed, naked-but-nippleless self on the book’s cover, slyly giving the world a come-fuck-me finger, to her epilogue, in which she fails to recognize that the Heidi of The Heidi Chronicles is a fictional character, the book is a wreck. But it’s a lurid wreck, and fascinating, too, if only because Wurtzel wrestles her considerable demons so close to the surface.
Wurtzel uses Bitch to barrel through lists of sad, single, abused, murdered or otherwise dead women, turning witty phrases and waiting for patterns to emerge. When they don’t, she plasters over the evidence with neatly manipulated designs that illustrate the miserable lot of womankind. “They faded away,” she says of every female ingénue who’s ever starred in a movie, “published bad poetry like Ally Sheedy, became full-time manic-depressives like Patty Duke, were found out to be bad actresses like Candice Bergen.” Between these covers, there’s no way a girl can win. “Did Lou Reed write ‘Femme Fatale’ for Edie Sedgwick or for Nico? Not that it much matters, since both are dead now, both victims of the needle and the damage done, while Lou, he’s clean, he’s in love (with Laurie Anderson), he’s a serious artist, he composes operas, he gives performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music using a stand for his lyric sheets as if he were a real musician.” Did she struggle, I wonder, over whether to allow Edie and Nico to stand for female rebellion, or was it just a reflex that Laurie Anderson, because she isn’t a known drug addict, could only be used as a symbol of Lou Reed’s success?
Tonight is not going to be the night to ask that question; I can feel it in the way Wurtzel responds to the bag of mint tea that arrives with her teapot (she ordered English Breakfast). Nor would it be wise to ask why Wurtzel subtitled Bitch “In Praise of Difficult Women” when she buries so many more women than she praises, or to remind her, while she’s comparing the tragic ends of bad girls to the auspicious futures of their boy counterparts, that Kurt Cobain shot himself and Courtney Love went to the Oscars. By the time Wurtzel straggles in for dinner, she’s in no mood for conversation, much less a civil argument. At the reading, she addressed everyone politely, even the woman who complained that feminism didn’t allow women to be traditional. Now she’s fresh out of nice. “You know, one of the unfortunate side effects of all this stuff is that all my friendly energy goes to being friendly under those circumstances,” she confides almost immediately. “So when the waiter is here and he’s asking me about Bill Maher? I just want to slap him. You know, I know he’s just being friendly, but I just can’t be friendly.”
Still, there’s one question I can’t resist. After her reading, a woman in the audience asked Wurtzel to name a few role models. “Well,” she said with a muffled giggle of apology, “they’re all men. Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer, Bruce Springsteen — I guess I’m just drawn to people who’ve had long, complicated artistic lives, and for whatever reason, those all tend to be men.” So I want to know a little more about the criteria by which Wurtzel judges artistic careers to be long and complicated.
“What about, like, Joni Mitchell?” I ask.
“She would be a role model,” Wurtzel allows. “I mean, she’s amazing and she’s really stuck to it. But she really didn’t have kids — she had a kid she put up for adoption, and I hate to think that’s what the price is.”
But didn’t Mailer try to kill his wife?
“I know, it’s not fair,” Wurtzel says. “I mean, you do have these people who have lived lives that are supposed to have made some kind of statement, like Gloria Steinem. But all I can think now is, ‘I wonder if she isn’t kind of lonely.’”
“Well, Joni said on the radio a month or two ago that she has a new boyfriend, and she was deriving great pleasure from playing with her grandkids,” I say, vaguely recalling an interview Mitchell did one morning on KCRW.
“No,” Wurtzel protests.
“Yes!” I insist.
“Well, that’s what she said on —”
“NO! JONI MITCHELL PUT HER KID UP FOR ADOPTION! It’s just ’cause the kid that she put up for adoption she reunited with. SHE DOESN’T HAVE KIDS!”
I didn’t expect to get answers out of Wurtzel that would make perfect sense, but I did expect bickering with her to be more fun. I was prepared for her to yell at me, but not over whether Joni Mitchell has grandkids. It made me yearn for a real bad girl, one whose concerns, on a scale of feminist suffering, weren’t so puny. It made me wish I were dining with Madonna, or Arianna Huffington, or even — dare I say it? — Camille Paglia. Because as much as Paglia lets fly absurdities about the suitability of certain jaws for the Great Presidential Blowjob, you’d never catch her letting a phrase like “I want to get married as much as the next person” slip out from the cracks in her rhetoric. Wurtzel, by contrast, boasts poetically about her sex life (“I needed to sleep with the junkie lead singer of a bad heavy-metal band and then sleep with his 19-year-old brother the next week,” she writes), claims to reject what Simone de Beauvoir called “the sexist and dated institution” of marriage, and yet lets you know in every chapter of Bitch that’s she’s already worrying about whether she’ll still be getting laid at the same rate when she gets to 40.
Which is certainly an understandable sentiment, but not one that justifies Wurtzel abandoning all philosophical reason, hissing in contempt when she means to be on the side of women, discounting long, complicated lives because they didn’t fulfill a romantic fairy tale too. Instead of persuading the world of her badness, Wurtzel, who confessed to her Book Soup audience that she’s kept “just barely afloat” by a cocktail of no less than four psychoactive drugs, comes off as merely panicky and sad, and willing to inflict the anxiety she feels at turning 30 without a husband on every woman in her path. I’m thinking of how Karen Finley defined her fellow black sheep: “no racism/no sexism/no homophobia.” The truly bad girl, it seems to me, would thank the waiter graciously and tell Norman Mailer to go to hell.
“Would you mind if we just got the check?” Wurtzel asks after a pause in which we both regain our composure. “I mean, I think I’d do a lot better with this after a good night’s sleep.”
The next day, Wurtzel’s good night’s sleep stretches right through our scheduled second try. A few days later, I call her at her Seattle hotel, as we agreed.