1948: Truman Capote causes a flutter in the publishing world by cupping his crotch and making
bedroom eyes on the back cover of his first novel. 1998: Elizabeth Wurtzel appears topless on the
front of Bitch, flipping the bird (which cleverly becomes the “I” of the title) and looking
as likely to kick your ass as seduce you, and every book critic in America snarls about how she’s
only doing it “for the publicity.” Confidential to those critics: So was Truman, and fifty years
later, we’re still reading him. Self-promotion does not equal hackdom; it may simply mean that the
writer would like to buy groceries, and often enough it seems to be the mark of a writer who takes
his or her writing very seriously indeed.
Think for a moment about the hundreds of book covers each year that feature gorgeous,
tastefully shadowed naked women. Most of these don’t cause a stir. But Bitch is different
because — gasp! — it’s the author who’s naked, and she’s sending a nontraditional fuck-you
message about her own sexuality, just as Capote was doing by appearing pretty and passive.
(Personal aside: I appeared naked and zombie-eyed on the cover of the Italian version of my novel
Exquisite Corpse. While I wondered whether some readers would be unpleasantly surprised by
the contents — the book contains not one female character, naked or otherwise — I was happy to
add my physical two cents to the general perversion of the book.)
Also, any time a female author who looks anywhere near this good gets anywhere near this
successful, a lot of people will take comfort in assuming that she fucked her way to the top. I
think Wurtzel’s jacket pose is the perfect answer to such people. In case the point still isn’t
clear, she hammers it down in the first chapter: “[T]o say that . . . posing nude is inconsistent
with being a serious scholar or a credible manager or a dynamic leader means we’re also going to
have to start saying that fucking the slave girls makes
Thomas Jefferson unworthy of having been
President or makes the Declaration of Independence a null and void document, sleeping with a
thousand women makes Wilt Chamberlain a lousy basketball player.” Thank you.
If I seem to be making much of a factor by which, proverbially, you aren’t supposed to judge
a book, it’s because I think in this case you can. A naked, fuck-you Elizabeth Wurtzel graces the
cover of Bitch and a naked, fuck-you Elizabeth Wurtzel is exactly what you get on every page.
The main difference is that, inside the book, she’s not nearly so attractive; nor does she wish to
be. She’s raw, cold-hearted, often wrong-headed, and occasionally suicidal. For me, all of these
things added to the enjoyment. There is nothing she is afraid to say, so her writing has a train
wreck/yenta quality that’s fascinating if you appreciate that sort of thing.
The book is subtitled “In Praise of Difficult Women,” and Wurtzel does discuss a number of
women who are (in one way or another) undeniably difficult. “Somehow there are these certain women
who are capable of manufacturing fascination,” she writes, “who just seem so damn interesting,
everything they do bespeaks trouble and scandal and a feeling that even when they’re home all
alone, there is always a party going on . . . Women, you see, only become interesting [in pop
culture] if they give you the feeling that something is not quite right.” Wurtzel doesn’t concern
herself only with media-beloved “bad girls” like Amy Fisher and Courtney Love, but also with women
who have made choices more complex than society credits them with, such as Nicole Simpson. “While
the O.J. trial brought domestic violence into the open,” she writes, “it may well have pushed the
subtleties of personality — the simple idea that you can act as a person and not as a ‘syndrome’
Sometimes Wurtzel herself invites a roughing up. She knows that, too, and I think she glories
in it. She’s not afraid to indict people before the facts are in or talk at length on subjects she
admits she knows little, if anything, about. She’s agile enough that this only occasionally makes
her look really idiotic, as in her musings on sadomasochism: “Now when I think of s & m or b & d,
as these practices are initialized in personal ads, I tend to think of pasty, pale men with oddly
distributed body hair, women in the kind of outfits that Versace turned into dresses . . .
Everybody is very unclean-looking, like they don’t have parents, like they were never babies who
were cuddled in somebody’s arms.”
Yup, that’s just what all the S/M practitioners I know are like. Wurtzel may believe she is
being arch and incisive here, but to me she sounds like a nice middle-class girl from Lawn Guyland,
scared, disgusted, maybe a little bit titillated, and definitely protesting too much. Her skill at
dissecting stereotypes is evident in other parts of the book — too bad she’s bought into this one
In truth, though, there’s no point quibbling with Bitch. It’s a book you have to
accept with all its warts and incomprehensibilities if you are going to get anything out of it.
Elizabeth Wurtzel doesn’t give a fuck what any of us think about any of this. At the heart of the
ranting on pop culture, film, and literature, Bitch is as much a self-portrait as Wurtzel’s
first (and far more coherent) book Prozac Nation. That chronicle of despair concluded with
Wurtzel’s successful drug treatment; one has to believe Bitch is the actual Prozac artifact.
She seems to have embraced her manic side and left most of the depressive behind, for now anyway.
For all its lofty references to Biblical mythology, Aeschylus, Jane Austen, and other
canonical authors, Bitch owes its largest literary debt to Sylvia Plath. Wurtzel
acknowledges this debt with a long discourse on Plath and The Bell Jar, Plath and her daddy,
but most of all Plath and Ted Hughes. Despite Wurtzel’s disclaimers, her assurances that she’s
gotten her shit together, even become distressingly sensible, one gets the idea that, in a way, she
sees Sylvia Plath’s life as something close to ideal.
But she’s already lived a year longer than Plath did, so maybe not. I hope not. I think
suicide is everyone’s right and should be some people’s obligation, but I’d like to see this young
writer stick around for a while. Wurtzel has a lot to say, and she’s not inclined to keep it to