I have been enthralled by the outlaw, outcast and outright lunatic in literature ever since I tried to explain the lure of the monster to my baffled little friends on play dates. Part of my fascination stems from this figure’s ability to pierce the part of us that believes we have seen it all. I loved what many have deemed grotesque in the work of Flannery O’Connor and Sherwood Anderson. Yet my propensity for the infuriating wasn’t limited to the written character. I also liked my writers punchy.
Even when I disagreed with them, I favored the authors who got me worked up, made me want to write a letter to the editor, punch a wall, run away and join a motorcycle gang, even though I could barely ride a bike. I idolized Camille Paglia and Germaine Greer over the safer and more palatable feminist alternatives; I constructed a private shrine in my heart for Allen Ginsberg; I lived for Lolita.
When I discovered the pop-cultural enfants terribles Mark Simpson and Elizabeth Wurtzel — the man Philip Hensher dubbed “the skinhead Oscar Wilde” and the woman America knows as the princess of Prozac and controversy (she is most famous for her book, Prozac Nation) — I added them to my pantheon of malcontents, rebels and freaks. I wanted my writers raw and possibly even arrested for refusing to shut the heck up. I vowed that when I grew up, I would run with the bulls as far as writing was concerned. I would don metaphorical leather and ink and worship at the altar of the countercultural.
The strangest part of all of this is the way these interests contradicted who I supposedly was. Many people believe that character should be aligned with whatever it is that turns your creative lights on, but this would never fit in my case. Kind and cheerful never really sat with my artistic impulses, which have often leaned towards the dark, unsettling and sometimes downright offensive. There is a lot of humor and even happiness in the pages of novels worn down by my repeated readings, but the overall tone is always somewhat offbeat.
When prompted to think of a happy song recently, I could only come up with my perennial favorite — Buckley crooning Cohen’s ballad of sorrow, “Hallelujah.” If I subscribed to such simplifications, I would be the “good” girl with “bad” interests. Instead, I decided that people are probably more polarized than they realize, and that these poles should be embraced. So I wanted the overblown and translunar when it came to art. Was that such a crime?
When I read Wurtzel’s Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, I realized that she fit the paradigm I’ve been describing to a tee. She angers people and has been called everything from the title of the aforementioned book, to a fraud and a dilettante. Guess what? I have no interest in those accusations.
When I read her writing, my brain switch is turned on by the livewire that is her mind and that’s all I care about. The real performance of her piece is this: she embodies the brilliant but difficult women she describes, even as she traces the etiology of her own fascination. As a reader, I was not so much watching her tell, as watching her. Her writing dripped with all the indicators of the female subversion she described, the trappings of the femme fatale, the beauty that maims.
I write this in praise of Wurtzel’s erudition on the subject of difficult writers, even if we are both a pain in your posterior, and perhaps because of it. As you are reading this, beware, because perhaps my writing also holds a cloak beneath a comma, a dagger behind a sentence, a ransom note right before your very eyes.