If I were to ask the students in my class to quote any one line of ‘Ozymandias,’ I doubt that one of them could do it. Almost all of them, however, would be able to tell me that Shelley was a drunk and died by drowning. –quoted as best I can remember from JD Salinger; I can’t find the book at present
If there is one thing in the world I hate, it is people who express opinions of books they haven’t read. Of course, there are many things that I hate, and I express my views on Charles Dickens, whom I’ve barely read, all the time. But, to quote that ever-useful line of Walt Whitman’s, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” This business of casting the ballot on books one hasn’t read happens all the time; in the past few months, however, one work seems to have born the brunt of it amongst the people I know: Elizabeth Wurtzel’s second book, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women.
Wurtzel’s first book was a memoir, Prozac Nation, and I could talk forever about what a fantastic book it is, how it is one of the only true represenations of depression that I know, and how I think it forms a paradigm for a new kind of writing, a post-everything mentality, blah blah blah. But a lot of other people have written about that. The book made the New York Times best-seller list. I’m not too worried about its place in the world. Bitch, however, I would like to address.
Bitch is the most refreshing book I have read in a long, long time. But every time I start to say that, somone says “Oh, I read a terrible review of that,” or “Oh, Naomi Wolf says that’s pseudo-feminism,” or, most frequently and worst of all, “Oh, I hear that got terrible reviews,” which would seem to suggest that the utterer of that statement isn’t even stealing the reviewer’s idea, they’re stealing someone else’s idea of the reviewer’s idea. And of course there are the comments I get when I carry the book around (which I kind of like to do even when I’m not reading it; sometimes I even think of putting the cover on other books, kind of like that grade school trick employed to read comic books in math class, but then I wouldn’t have the book on hand to read excerpts from it, as I started to do for a small audience while waiting to get my oil changed). These are probably due to the cover, which I have kindly stolen for you, courtesy of the good folks at amazon.com.
Bitch is the most refreshing book I have read in a long time because it achieves all of the things which The New Rambler strives for: it is brazen, it says the hell with most journalistic conventions, it concerns things which nobody seems to care about (Amy Fisher, Margaux Hemingway) or new aspects of things which have been overdone (Nicole Brown Simpson, Hillary Clinton). Bitch remembers women who go unremembered, or who are remembered only for their deaths or their sins, as Shelley is remembered for his drinking and his drowning. At 400 pages, yes, it rambles (but of course we encourage that around here), but amidst that rambling is some of the only intelligent stuff about being female that I, Miss Anti-Women’s Studies USA, have ever read.
Wurtzel has been criticized for being overly inflammatory, for not having a clear point, for contradicting herself, and for being unduly disclosive, among other things. I don’t always agree with Wurtzel; in fact, I’d really like to grind an ax about Jane Austen with her sometime (I’m pro, she’s con). But I don’t always agree with my friends, either, nor do our arguments always come to coherent conclusions. If the course of human history hasn’t yet answered the questions posed about the role of women in society, it seems unlikely that any one book will provide all the answers. But to find the right answers, it is often necessary first to ask the right questions, and I think Wurtzel has a lot of those, questions about just why one bothers with dictums one did not invent. Referring only in part to the atrocity known as The Rules, she writes:
Well, I for one am sick of it. All my life, one person or another has been telling me to behave, saying don’t let a guy know you’re a depressed maniac on the first date, don’t just be yourself, don’t show your feelings. . . . I don’t like it. It seems like, all this, all these years of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi–all that smart writing all so we could learn to behave? Bra-burning in Atlantic City–so we could learn to behave? Roe v. Wade–so we could learn to behave? Thelma & Louise–so we could learn to behave? The gender gap–so we could learn to behave? Madonna, Sally Ride, Joycelyn Elders, Golda Meir, Anita Hill, Bette Davis, Leni Riefenstahl–all those strong indefatigable souls so we could learn to behave?
Get out there, read Bitch, or read something, and remember how to think.