Elizabeth Wurtzel showed women they could write the messy, humiliating truth
Prozac Nation kickstarted a genre often looked down on as exploitative. But such warnings risk silencing young women
Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of the memoir Prozac Nation, holds up a locket with the word Prozac on it in New York. Photograph: Catherine McGann/Getty Images
“We begrudged her for being such a famous and hot little mess,” wrote a contemporary of Elizabeth Wurtzel in 2013. Following Wurtzel’s death last Tuesday, an author tweeted: “Elizabeth Wurtzel was a major factor in making personal essay the currency of women writers in the 90s. This was a blessing and a curse, both for her and for the rest of us.”
Of course, the begrudgery and the ambivalence – as well as all the criticism Wurtzel received – is only one side of the story. For many people Prozac Nation, her debut about depression, was an exhilarating break from literary convention, an entirely new and liberating way to write and conceive of oneself as a writer.
Wurtzel’s enormous success helped to popularise a particular raw, candid memoir style that in turn would influence the boom in online personal essays – what Slate magazine once termed “the first person industrial complex”, hordes of mostly women writers getting their early breaks by writing intimate pieces.
The culture changed, helped not only by Wurtzel and her contemporaries but by the incontinent nature of online writing: in the 26 years since the publication of Prozac Nation, female “confessional” writing has gone from a non-genre, to utterly pervasive, to played out and haggard. Editors began to stress that they did not want to hear personal pitches. It has become a bit of a trope among established writers to warn younger ones off this kind of work, largely for good reason. And yet I bristle when they do.
Once, and not very long ago, such warnings were born of censoriousness, not kindness. Many laughed at Wurtzel and her latter contemporaries for their candour and their self-obsession, finding there to be something essentially unseemly, un-literary about their work – and, I would venture, something inherently, stickily feminine.
To be a woman accepted into the literary establishment, you had to be not only fastidiously intellectual – you had to become a figure beyond femaleness. If you had an exceptionally fine mind then you could sneak in, always reminded of your luck, but the realm of the mind was the only one you were allowed to exist within. The way you had sex, gave birth, went mad, were hurt – that was all a bit too close to the bone, too messy, too bloody.
Now, once again, we warn young women to be cautious with the material of their lives, not to be careless with their disclosures. We do this because we know they can be manipulated by an uncaring economy that uses the desire to be published in exchange for trauma, trauma that is then consumed pruriently. I too feel revulsion at the crass editors and readers who abuse the trust and hope of young writers. And yet I worry that in trying to protect them, we are – if not intentionally, then in a material sense – veering back to enforcing the idea that their difficult experiences are lowbrow and beneath the remit of good writing.
We should trust that not every young woman writer is a naive mark being hustled if they do choose to write about dark or private subjects. The first real thing I ever wrote, when I was 24, was about getting an abortion when abortion was still illegal in Ireland. I was paid about $40 (£30), which seemed a lot back then, and a (male) colleague commented beneath it, “You’ll regret writing this” – meaning, I think, that I would be embarrassed by it when I was older. I never did regret it, because it led, in part, to my establishing a career. Nor did I ever find that the embarrassment – which did exist, sure – outdid the pride I had in producing a good piece of writing.
It strikes me as a bleak concession to the world of waged work to tell young women not to write about things they feel strongly about. Better, surely, to tell them to sack off the fifty quid from an exploitative editor, do a few shifts in a cafe instead and for the hell of it write freely, personally, about all the painful subjects they are inclined to when they get in at night.
Writing can still be beautiful and incendiary and culturally worthy even if it isn’t personally a joy to publish or if it doesn’t somehow “heal” the person writing it. Not all of us are looking for catharsis or to be reconciled with the past, but are looking instead to make good, valuable creative work.
Embarrassment is not a byproduct but an essential component of some kinds of memoir. You can relate an event or an emotion that makes you look stupid or vain or vulnerable or foolish, but there is nothing foolish about groundbreaking art. Maybe it will be messy. Maybe we will regret it at times. But that’s fine. The point of great personal writing is to show how things really are, how life really is. Life is messy and humiliating. Why shouldn’t art be too? – Guardian
Megan Nolan is an Irish writer based in London. Her debut novel, Acts of Desperation, is to be published by Jonathan Cape next year.