“I really wanted to like this book, but even a few pages in, I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy it… “, Catherine Redfern forces herself to read Bitch
I really wanted to like this book. It’s by one of the set of new young feminist writers, and already a thirdwave classic. It’s described by the authors of Manifesta (effectively the rough guide to the thirdwave) – as a “glory rant”, “smart and original”, and a “convincing defence of the women for whom almost no one has sympathy.” The word ‘bitch’ has even entered the thirdwave lexicon as a compliment.
Wurtzel had originally gained notoriety and popularity through her first book, Prozac Nation. Bitch is her second book, and one of the books it seems you have to read if you want to understand young feminism today. I really wanted to like this book: young, smart, sassy, popular thirdwave feminist – what’s not to like?
But even a few pages in, I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy it. The main thing – and I know it’s superficial – was her writing style. It is extremely informal, very personalised (which I don’t mind), but also very rambling, wandering; no clear purpose, no focus, no clear argument. I found it very hardgoing. A typical sentence, chosen at random, goes like this:
Whether it’s Johnnie Cochran, who made his name as a civil rights lawyer and who so honorably defended the falsely convicted Black Panther leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt (and finally got him released from Pelican Bay after seventeen years), but was now race-baiting for a celebrity wife-beater; or Barry Scheck and Peter Neufield, who have always been good lefties, founding the Innocence Project to make use of DNA to rescue indigent men from the injustice of the death chamber, but were now selling out; or both Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, who were thought to have been incompetent with jury selection, and then with this and that thereafter; Lance Ito, who was thought to be just plain incompetent; the jurors, with their internecine squabbles over deputies and more privileges, and who, let’s be honest here – because the color of a person’s skin should not be keep anyone from speaking the truth – were just plain stupid; all those witnesses who sold their stories to Hard Copy et al., who created a bull market for the stories of anyone who, say, drove past a white Ford Bronco anywhere in the Los Angeles area on the night of the murder; even the Brown family, grieving though they were made the questionable move of selling the rights to a videotape of Nicole and O.J.’s wedding.
If you can read and understand that sentence in one go without having to start over again, you’re a better woman than I. Much of the book is written in this complex style. I think some people might find it refreshing, but I just found it hard work. It was almost as if she had dictated it verbally and then had the transcription written up. She veers off on tangents, seemingly writing about whatever comes into her head. It felt as though she could go on like this for ever (and sometimes it felt like she was).
Maybe I’m not as intelligent as I think I am(!), maybe I’m coming across as a snob, but I found reading this book a chore. It was something I had to force myself to do and concentrate hard every step of the way. To be honest, I got bored. The book is simply way too long. It needed cutting down, sharpening up, thinning out. It needed better and stricter editing. I know, I’m sure I couldn’t do any better, but it read like a draft that needed tightening up.
As you can see, just from the sentence quoted above, the book is littered with references to figures and events in American culture. This is done often in passing, assuming the reader is aware of their significance and au fait with the relevance of mentioning them. For British readers, this could prove frustrating.
In 1997, Yvonne Abraham wrote an article (linked here) criticising the new wave of feminist writers. She wrote parodying their books sarcastically as “memoir-ish post-feminist” texts, often “with portrait of brooding but attractive [author] on jacket… drawing heavily on highly typical personal experience as proof of central arguments re: current state of women.” Well maybe I’ve got my dates wrong, but if she wrote that in 1997 Yvonne Abrahams could make a fortune predicting the future. It’s a pretty good description of Bitch – published one year later in 1998.
Bitch could be described as “memoir-ish”. Elizabeth Wurtzel includes an incredible amount of personal feelings, memoirs and thoughts in the work, particularly in the Epiloge, which includes passages like:
…I needed to spend a month in Miama Beach by myself, to walk into a tattoo parlor off the main drag, get some touch-ups on a hand-done India-ink engraving some guy gave me with a needle and thread one drunken college night, and then I needed to fuck the tattoo artist… I needed to walk the streets of downtown SoHo, stopping for iced tea at the T Salon, having a manicure once a week at a Korean place in the Village… I needed to have the IRS seize my assets; I needed to cop heroin all by myself on Avenue C or Stanton Street… and I needed to nearly get arrested trying to score some dope in Madrid; I needed, I guess, to spend a night in a city jail in Florida…
…Ad infinitum. This passage alone goes on for around two pages, and even then I really wasn’t sure what the point of it all was.
And yes, that is apparently the author on the cover of the book, sitting topless and sultry, leaning on the back of a chair, her long hair flowing over her shoulders, her eyebrow arched, a coy smile playing on her lips. And, though you don’t notice it at first, her middle finger is raised, saying Up Yours: Screw You. What a Bitch! But who or what is it directed at? The readers? Life? Men? Society? Culture? Who knows. I kinda think some of it might be directed at traditional style feminism itself – giving the finger to those who think feminists should never pose nude on a book jacket: especially ones who look as slim and gorgeous as her. Wurtzel has apparently once said she has no time for feminism if it won’t allow her to live life they way she wants.
You’ll note I haven’t analysed the actual content of the book yet. I’ll be honest. It’s because I finished it still confused about what her actual point was. What was she arguing? It’s supposed to be a book defending the ‘bitches’ in society, but she veers off into so many other topics I just couldn’t tell what the main thrust of her argument was. Her chapters start from discussing specific women: Delilah, Amy Fisher, Hillary Clinton, Nicole Simpson, Slyvia Plath, and various other depressed, mad or bad women. But she uses them as a springboard to discuss many other things, literally anything that comes into her head. Towards the end, the book seemed to turn into a lament about the nature of love and relationships. Her remit seems to be as wide as life itself. It’s like one long scream about being true to yourself, about being outrageous and bitchy and hedonistic and not giving a fuck what anyone says. That’s all very well, but does it really need to take that long to say it?
Her politics are also hard to pin down. Not that I think feminists should have to fit into strictly defined labels; they should be able to pick and choose from all aspects of feminism. One minute her arguments are almost scraping radical when she trashes things like s&m sex, and fashion models. The most interesting concept in the book was her idea that all women suffer a kind of ‘psychic death’ in society as we are forced into our roles, and those who rebel are deemed mad or bitches – but really they’re the sane ones. And then on the other hand, she says things like “[women] don’t age as well, plastic surgery or no”, or “putting out one’s pretty power, one’s pussy power, one’s sexual energy for popular consumption no longer makes you a bimbo… it makes you smart.” And then, all of a sudden, she doesn’t sound so radical anymore.
I hate to put a downer on things. I hate to criticise a young feminist’s book, as frankly, we need them. I certainly don’t think that all thirdwave or young feminist writing is worthless and superficial, as Yvonne Abraham seems to. But in the end, I left the book feeling she had been writing to, and for, herself. This book is undoubtedly very intelligent and passionate, but also difficult and complex. Kind of like the author herself, it seems. But I bet the bitch wouldn’t want it any other way.
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