Prozac Nation kickstarted a genre often looked down on as exploitative. But such warnings risk silencing young women, says Irish writer Megan Nolan
We begrudged her for being such a famous and hot little mess, wrote a contemporary of Elizabeth Wurtzels in 2013. Following Wurtzels death on 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. Wurtzels 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.
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