Last week, Hamilton Nolan at Gawker created a minor online kerfuffle with his piece “Journalism Is Not Narcissism,” decrying how journalism schools now teach and encourage memoir/confessional writing rather than training the next gen of reporters to focus on the larger world around them. Last night, New York magazine published a bit of memoir writing by Elizabeth Wurtzel that is as lengthy as it is incoherent, so the question arises: Did Nolan pay off Wurtzel to make his point for him?
Wurtzel, most famously the author of Prozac Nation (subtitled “Young and Depressed in America: A Memoir”), has long existed for seemingly no other reason than to make other writers want to stomp about in impotent rage. (Why must the rest of us endure notes from editors demanding reader-friendly qualities like “a thesis,” “evidence,” and “cohesion”?) Her latest word dump swirls around the fact that she is very sorry to find out that she, like all other human beings on the planet, is getting older. (Though she repeatedly makes note of the fact that she can still wear her college age jeans, in case any male readers are curious about what it would be like to be the next man to lay about with her wondering if the hundreds of millions of Buddhists in the world are simply going through a phase.) The realization that she will not be afforded special dispensation from having to join the sagging and wrinkling masses in our journeys to the grave sends Wurtzel into a tailspin of anger at the world for failing her. “I am a free spirit. I do not know any other way to be,” she bemoans. “No one else seems to live as I do. In a world gone wrong, a pure heart is dangerous.”
Wurtzel seems to divide people into two groups: The tediously conventional who are rewarded for lacking in pure hearts with Tiffany silver and long-lasting relationships, and the pure-hearted who end up alone and sad, if still amazingly hot and totally able to prove it with pictures in New York magazine. The latter, a nation of one, does not pause to consider that having a best-selling book, the ability to live in Manhattan, and the frequent opportunity to be paid well to drop incoherent screeds that no other writer gets away with might make her pleas of victimization fall on deaf ears. Indeed, her sadness is so profound I started to actually feel sorry for her, even as I disagreed violently that the problem with her life is that she’s just too free and pure.
Wurtzel sees her conundrum in female-specific terms:
It had never occurred to me before that any of the choices I made, which I prized, I guess because at least they were mine, were crazy or risky; but I was becoming convinced. I am committed to feminism and don’t understand why anyone would agree to be party to a relationship that is not absolutely equal. I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that, and I am heartbroken to live through a time where Wall Street money means these women are not treated with due disdain. But I also don’t get it: Even sitting through a carafe of Italian wine with a guy who worked in private equity felt like being handcuffed in the back seat of an unmarked squad car: The next stop is jail. And a lot feels potentially imprisoning to me: To get through every day, through a job of staring at pencil marks in spreadsheets through glassy eyes, through humoring a husband who has not sold a screenplay in six years and is writing a new one still, through telling everybody your three basic children are talented and gifted—I know that people who do these things are happy because happiness is the untruths we tell each other and ourselves or it would be unbearable. But I would rather not. I would rather be sad, and sometimes lonely, but at least not suffering the silly.
As someone who takes feminism seriously as a social justice movement, it’s particularly painful to see a woman use it as a handy excuse for failures that are easily chalked up to other things. Wurtzel is simply wrong to believe there’s no middle ground between being completely alone and having to endure the indignities of a subservient relationship. If anything, living in a huge, liberal metropolis in the 21st century is to have access to more men than have ever before existed in history that are open to the possibility of a long-lasting, egalitarian relationship. Stop going out with the private equity guys, Liz!
In his piece encouraging writers to crawl out of their own asses, Nolan framed an obsession with memoir as a career obstacle: “But for the writers themselves, they are a short-lived and ultimately demeaning game. They are a path that ends in hackdom.” Wurtzel’s piece suggests that it might not just be bad for your career, but for your soul. One can’t shake the sensation that if Wurtzel got out and learned a little bit more about the world and the non-her people in it, she’d probably have fewer shame-and-fear spirals and start feeling better about her lot in life. Also, maybe she’d find a different calling.