Ugly: The Problem with Elizabeth Wurtzel

“I am so done with 2012,” writes Elizabeth Wurtzel in New York magazine. But we’ve heard this before. You promise?

By now, you might have heard about Wurtzel’s inexplicable new essay, “Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts Her One-Night Stand of a Life.” It’s a bizarre, rambling mess of an article, and it’s impossible to summarize, because it has no discernible point. Wurtzel, a journalist and lawyer best known for her 1994 memoir Prozac Nation, has never been a very talented writer, but she’s always been fascinating, the way slow train wrecks sometimes are.

She is a beautiful woman who is keenly aware — to the point of obsession — of her own beauty. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that her self-regard is killing her career. She might well be the most narcissistic writer of her generation, which — let’s face it, fellow Generation X-ers — is saying something. “One-Night Stand” raises at least one interesting question, though almost certainly unintentionally: would Wurtzel be more interesting, more compelling, if she’d been born with the gift of ugliness? Is it beauty killed the beast her bizarre career has become?

Anyone who’s followed Wurtzel’s career could have seen this coming. The author stunned readers a few months ago with an instantly controversial article in Harper’s Bazaar, in which she bravely confronted one of the world’s most serious problems: ugly people. Wurtzel wrote:

I am horrified by the onset of slovenliness. In my experience it is actually not so difficult to not be a complete pig. I am 45 and in the physical shape of someone about half my age. I realize this is obnoxious to say, but it just takes discipline. … I want everyone to try as hard as I do to please be gorgeous, because it’s not that hard, girls. Looking great is a matter of feminism.

This surprised generations of actual feminists who were theretofore unaware that their struggle for equal rights also encompassed conforming to beauty standards that have been written and enforced, for centuries upon centuries, by men. The article was breathtakingly narcissistic, and showed exactly zero signs of self-awareness.

“One-Night Stand” proves she hasn’t changed much. The essay starts with Wurtzel being sort-of stalked by the woman who previously occupied her apartment. Wurtzel calls the police, but to no avail, apparently: “They always sent pairs of very fat female cops,” she complains. And then, in a weird digression, she complains some more:

Women who have it all should try having nothing: I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account. … I have no assets and no family.

Even if she did, it wouldn’t matter: “Women who are supported by men are prostitutes,” Wurtzel writes, which undoubtedly will come as a shock to women whose partners are helping put them through graduate school, or supporting their family while the woman is unemployed and looking for work. Wurtzel, though, is a kind of poet laureate of obliviousness. Consider this:

…and so it goes with talented and thoughtful people who move to places like New York and L.A. and Chicago and Austin and wherever else you take your wits these days. … In a city, these are the people who make the place vital and fun. They work hard but still have time to try a no­reservations restaurant on the Lower East Side or to check out the small boutiques in Nolita and help interesting young designers get off to a start. Mostly, they make six-figure incomes and somehow manage. And they are happy for the privilege.

Emphasis mine. But hell, she has a point: how do these people who are only making six figures a year manage to stay alive? Why, that could be as little as $100,000! No self-respecting boutique in Nolita, wherever the hell that is, would even let you in the door with a paycheck stub that small.

The essay continues on and on in this vein, never really settling on a point of view, or a point at all. There’s an unsubtle name-drop of the author David Foster Wallace, and an equally unsubtle screw-you to the editor David Remnick. She gets a dog, then maybe a boyfriend (that part’s a little vague), and a job working for a famous litigator. Maybe it wasn’t a bad year after all, huh?

But this is it for me. I am a free spirit. I do not know any other way to be. No one else seems to live as I do. In a world gone wrong, a pure heart is dangerous.

There’s almost no way to respond to that. It might be the most narcissistic paragraph ever published. Even if Holden Caulfield had a Messiah complex, he wouldn’t have believed that he’s the only one, some pure, delicate beauty who had to tear himself away from the banks of the reflecting pool in order to live.

So what happened to Elizabeth Wurtzel? As a writer, she is — at her best — very slightly better than mediocre. But she also seemed poised to make herself a bright career in spite of that — beautiful people often do. The problem is that she’s become so far gone, so alienated from any normal sense of perspective, that she might well be past the point of no return.

It’s sad, of course, and you have to wonder what would have happened if she’d been born with the gift of unattractiveness, the ability to not stare all day into a mirror, real or virtual. Maybe this kind of obliviousness and self-obsession is just the tax you pay for beauty. It doesn’t seem worth it. “We are ugly, but we have the music,” Leonard Cohen once sang. He also sang:

I came so far for beauty
I left so much behind
My patience and my family
My masterpiece unsigned

When Elizabeth Wurtzel signs her masterpiece, nobody will be there to read it. Not even her.

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