Twenty years ago Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation ushered in a wave of confessional literature. While much-criticized at the time, we should hail her unflinching candor.
It’s not easy being labeled the voice of your generation if readers don’t find you likable. You get criticized more than you should, and few of your writing peers want to stand up for you.
Emily Gould, the former editor of Gawker and author of the much-talked-about new novel, Friendship, has learned this lesson the hard way in recent years. As a result of her penchant for oversharing her personal life and often that of her boyfriend, she has become the writer critics love to hate.
Two decades ago, following the publication of her 1994 memoir, Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel, who turns 47 at the end of this month, got the same piñata treatment. Did she deserve it? On the 20th anniversary of Prozac Nation, it is time to ask that question by putting the book in the kind of perspective it never got when it was published.
With its graphic account of Wurtzel’s battles with depression, Prozac Nation seemed about to become the equivalent for her generation of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Plath’s book, first published in England in 1963 under the pseudonym, Victoria Lucas, told the story of Esther Greenwood, a woman much like Plath, who suffers from depression and worries, even after extensive electroshock therapy, that her depression could come back anytime.
Esther’s depression is inseparable from her fear of being pushed into an early marriage, as so many college women of her 1950s generation were. It was the right time to have such a fear. Published in the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique, The Bell Jar came to be praised as much for its gender politics as its literary merit.
Plath’s suicide in February 1963, a month after the publication of The Bell Jar, elevated her book to cult status. Who could not wonder what Plath might have achieved if she had been given even a decade more to write?
Wurtzel, who fortunately has survived her struggles with suicide, has never been in a position to receive the kind of sympathy Plath got. By the time Wurtzel arrived at Harvard in the 1980s, the university had gone coed. The sexual revolution was a given, and Wurtzel did not need to worry about becoming dependent on a man in order to support herself.
“She shows her readers that her depression did not just make her unhappy, it often made her incapable of empathy.”
What she did need to worry about was trying to underplay her book in view of the attention it drew. “Prozac Nation is, as far as I am concerned,” Wurtzel wrote in a later afterword, “a memoir with no particular thesis or point, nothing in it championing any cause that could be considered as ‘controversial,’ telling only a small, personal tale of one girl’s mental hell.”
The book was in fact much richer than Wurtzel claimed. Prozac Nation gives a moving picture of how Wurtzel was forced to deal with acute depression starting in early childhood and how winning prizes in school and getting into Harvard did not lessen her unhappiness. Even more important, Prozac Nation—with its jaunty style—opened the way for the lively, confessional literature of a new generation. Melissa Bank’s The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing and Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada had no trouble winning acceptance in the wake of Wurtzel’s far more troubled memoir.
Reviewers, even those Wurtzel’s age, were, nonetheless, only too happy to see her book in the smallest and most reductive terms. The praise she got in magazines such as Vanity Fair and Mademoiselle never equaled the attacks that came her way.
In The Harvard Crimson, for which Wurtzel once wrote, the review she got, subtitled, “Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Unofficial Guide to Whining,” was all putdown. “Elizabeth Wurtzel is more useful as an object lesson in how much the New York publishing industry sucks. How did this chick get a book contract in the first place? Why was she allowed to write such crap?” the Crimson asked.
The New York Times’s Sunday review was almost as snide, dismissing any larger insights Wurtzel might have about her generation with the observation “she has ended up with something she might just as well have called ‘Listening to Wurtzel.’”
Anyone going through Prozac Nation can certainly find plenty of callow moments when Wurtzel does whine. Wurtzel’s mother gets mugged in New York, and Wurtzel is reluctant to leave Cambridge to be by her bedside. Wurtzel’s boyfriend goes home during Christmas vacation to be with his mother and sister, and Wurtzel, trying to avoid another breakdown, resents the attention he gives his family.
But what reviewers who seize upon these moments as proof of Wurtzel’s fundamental callowness ignore is that in Prozac Nation she makes a point of deliberately parading her worst side. Her aim is to show her readers that her depression did not just make her unhappy. It often made her unfeeling and incapable of empathy.
Throughout Prozac Nation Wurtzel goes out of her way to show that she is not happy being a prisoner of her emotional lows. She is driven not just by an effort to gain some kind of balance for herself but by a desire to excel personally and professionally. When, for example, Wurtzel should be worrying about getting well, she can’t stop reminding herself that her illness will interfere with a class paper she needs to complete.
The result is a no-win situation. Wurtzel is aware that focusing as intensely as she does—and must—on her own depression puts her in a position in which she risks letting her depression define her. “In a strange way, I had fallen in love with my depression,” she confesses. “I thought so little of myself, felt that I had such scant offerings to give the world, that the one thing that justified my existence at all was my agony.”
The best Wurtzel can do by the end of Prozac Nation is tell her readers that she thinks she has at last reached an equilibrium of sorts. “The black wave, for the most part, is gone,” she says. “On a good day, I don’t even think about it anymore.”
Why such a tentative—and brave—conclusion should have spurred so many readers and reviewers to lash out at Wurtzel two decades ago is still hard to figure out. Perhaps she scared them with her candor? Perhaps, in the spirit of Holden Caulfield, she should have found a way to make her depression endearing?
Even today, though, Wurtzel is not one to curry favor. She has not tried to make peace with her critics, and she has never attempted to rebrand herself by becoming an elder twentysomething. Despite being an outspoken admirer of Lena Dunham’s Girls, Wurtzel is often at odds with today’s millennials.
As far as Wurtzel is concerned, most millennials seem too removed from the day to day, too willing to live vicariously. “A lot of people believe they are doing things when they are interacting online. They believe they have friends on Facebook and Twitter,” she wrote last year in The Daily Beast. “But that is not life—it is virtual life.”