Bitch, the latest offering from Elizabeth Wurtzel, is a book you can judge by its cover. Unlike Prozac Nation, on which Wurtzel only exposes her midriff, she's completely naked this time. Her right hand is draped seductively over the back of a chair, and her left hand is resting on her head, the middle finger extending upwards to form the 'I' of Bitch. Her nipples, mercifully, are cloaked in shadow.
But it's the smile on her face which is the clue to the book's contents. It's a knowing, mischievous smile, a smile which says, 'I know this is a tacky way to promote my book, but what can can I do?' She's not really flipping you the bird, you understand. She's going along with the demands of America's sex-obsessed, tabloid culture and remaining ironically detached from it at the same time. It's a post-modern, Gen X marketing strategy, a publicity stunt which captures the zeitgeist and comments on it simultaneously.
Elizabeth Wurtzel is the best-known of a generation of non-fiction writers, nearly all of whom are women, and most of whom, oddly enough, went to Harvard. The schizophrenic, not to say hypocritical, attitude towards the media exemplified by the cover of Wurtzel's new book is typical of these authors. In their books they trot out the standard complaints about our media-saturated culture, the way it dumbs everything down to the level of a crude, simple-minded morality play, that kind of thing. Yet they also crave the fame, the riches, the instant authority, that being a media darling can bring them.
It's as though they're hip to the way the modern publishing game is played--pick a hot-button issue, stick a sexy picture of themselves on the jacket, play the Harvard card--yet want to be judged as the intellectual heirs of Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer and Betty Freidan. They're publicity sluts who refuse to talk to tabloids, fame whores in blue stockings. They graduated from Harvard clutching a diploma in one hand and a copy of Vogue in the other--and they've continued to juggle integrity and notoriety ever since.
In 1963, a reporter asked Mary McCarthy what it was that women really wanted Her answer was simple: "They want everything." Meet the non-fictionistas, the clitterati, the girls on the Jitney. Meet the Harvard Muffia.
When Melanie Thernstrom, a Harvard senior, turned in her senior honors thesis in 1987 she had little idea of the Pandora's Box she was about to open. Called Mistakes of Metaphor, it was an account of the murder of her best friend, Roberta 'Bibi' Lee, by her boyfriend three years earlier. Michael Blumenthal, her poetry professor, was so impressed he showed it to two literary agents, Glen Hartley and Lynn Chu, who, after some minor revisions, showed it to some publishers. By the time the dust had settled in the ensuing bidding war, Melanie Thernstrom had an advance of $367,000.
The Dead Girl, which was published by Pocket Books in 1990, is a peculiar combination of literary theory and true crime. It's a rambling, articulate mess of a book, precisely the kind of memoir you'd expect from a Harvard co-ed with the collected works of John-Paul Satre on her bookshelf. The real subject of the book, needless to say, is not Roberta Lee, but Melanie Thernstrom--her boyfriends, her weight problem, her attempted suicide--and she goes on at some length, in a lit crit kind of way, to justify this. Harold Brodkey loved it--"I like this book better than In Cold Blood"--but, not surprisingly, fans of the true crime genre didn't. Its initial print run of 60,000 was unrealistic. It wasn't a big seller.
In the interviews she gave to promote the book Thernstrom came across as a little ambivalent about the big, commercial push it was getting. She made it clear it had been her publisher's idea to give it a conventional, true crime structure, concluding with the murder trial, and she complained about the title, which was suggested by one of her agents. "It's hard to think of your own dear book being called The Dead Girl," she told People magazine. Yet it's difficult to imagine a book called Mistakes of Metaphor being given a 60,000 print run.
She was also shocked--shocked!--that Roberta Lee's parents refused to give her permission to quote from her friend's letters. "It was if they thought they had the copyright on her life," she said. We only discover at the end of the book that the letters she's been quoting from all the way through, which purport to be from Roberta, are in fact "imaginary." The same peevishness is detectable in Thernstrom's second book, Halfway Heaven, about a Harvard co-ed who murdered her roommate and then committed suicide (The Dead Girls). In this book, published last September by Doubleday, she works herself up into a similar lather, this time because the Harvard authorities were reluctant to cooperate with her.
If she hasn't done so already, Thernstrom should read Janet Malcolm's New Yorker essay, The Journalist and the Murderer, about the problematic nature of the relationship between journalists and the people they write about, particularly when it comes to crime reporting. The subjects of true crime books invariably complain about their portrayal--it comes with the territory. Thernstrom is trying to piggy-bag on the true crime genre without wanting to take the inevitable punches. She's like Patricia Highsmith without the tough-mindedness, a Junior League Joyce Carol Oates.
Like several of the Harvard graduates who followed in her footsteps, Melanie Thernstrom is fairly well-connected. Her mother, Abigail, is a prominent neoconservative political scientist and her father, Stephan, is the Winthrop Professor of American History at Harvard. The next Harvard graduate to publish a non-fiction book, Katie Riophe, was even better connected. Her father, Herman, is a well-known New York psychoanalyst and her mother is the feminist writer Anne Roiphe, author of Up The Sandbox and for years a regular contributor to the New York Times.
Not coincidentally, Katie Roiphe's big break came when the Times published an Op Ed piece by her in November, 1991, arguing that the then widespread hysteria about date rape was a maladie imaginaire. This quickly led to an agent and a book deal and in 1993 The Morning After was published by Little Brown.
The Morning After is more of a polemical essay than a personal memoir, not unlike The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf and Backlash by Suzan Faludi. However, Roiphe parts company with them by attacking many of the shibboleths of the modern feminist movement. In particular, she singles out the hysteria over date rape on college campuses, claiming it stems from a Victorian conception of women as passive victims whose virtue needs to be protected from predatory men.
Almost overnight, Roiphe became the politically correct movement's favourite whipping boy, with hundreds of Princeton students signing a petition against her. In the months following the publication of The Morning After, she received sack-loads of hate-mail, with one feminist labelling her "the Clarence Thomas of women." In one respect, at least, her critics were right: Roiphe had balls.
Strangely, however, in the Introduction to the paperback edition, Roiphe complains about the partisan reaction to The Morning After, taking her critics to task for responding in such a blind, knee-jerk way. Hello! What was she expecting, hosannas all round? She deliberately took a provocative, controversial line on a hot-button issue, a move guaranteed to polarize the debate, not produce a climate of measured, thoughtful discussion. "In an age of fast food and microwave ovens," she writes, "it seems natural to reach for the equivalent in ideas," forgetting for a moment that her own book grew out of an Op Ed piece.
Since the publication of The Morning After, Roiphe has frequently complained about being unfairly cast as a neoconservative, yet she's done little to contradict the impression. Her most recent book, Last Night in Paradise, at times reads like a wistful lament for the nineteenth century, with its "strong social codes" and "rules to live by," and she recently wrote an article for Esquire in which she confessed that "my independence is in part an elaborately constructed facade that hides a more traditional feminine desire to be protected and provided for." It's as if she's been pushed into an anti-feminist position by the notoriety she attracted for her first book. As John Updike is fond of saying, celebrity is a mask that's impossible to take off.
This willingness to play along with the media's type-casting when it comes to promoting a book, coupled with endless complaints about it when it no longer suits them, is typical of this generation of Harvard writers. It's an odd combination of preciousness and hucksterism, naivety and nous. An even better example than either Melanie Thernstrom or Katie Roiphe is Elizabeth Wurtzel.
If Thernstrom was the trail-blazer, showing how to turn your senior thesis into a $367,000 advance, Wurtzel led the stampede. She didn't have any of Thernstrom's well-bred reservations about hogging the spotlight. With a cock in each hand, a snout full of cocaine, and a belly full of bile, Wurtzel tore through Harvard like Courtney Love on a bad-hair day, spitting out anti-depressants wherever she went. By the time she was through she had a Rolling Stone Journalism Award, a gig at the New Yorker and a contract to write what would become the most reviled book of the decade, Prozac Nation.
So much has been written about Prozac Nation, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1994, it's one of those books you feel you don't need to read to get a handle on. You don't. It turns out to be just as you imagined: a torturous, nerve-shattering, fingers-on-a-blackboard kind of book. Reading it is like being locked in a padded cell for 48 hours with...well, with Elizabeth Wurtzel. It's one ceaseless, narcissistic whine: about how depressed she is all the time, how she kept being prescribed the wrong medication, how her father wasn't there for her...on and on it goes. It should have a warning label on the cover: "Do not attempt to read this book without a bottle of 200 Ibuprofin immediately to hand."
In the Afterword to Prozac Nation, written a year after all the negative reviews appeared, Wurtzel claims this was precisely the effect she intended. "I found myself saying to not a few people who would tell me they found the book angering and annoying to read: Good. Very good: That means I did what I had set out to do."
Yet this triumphalist tone, congratulating herself on having yanked her critics' chains, sits a little oddly with the endlessly repeated theme of Prozac Nation: No one understands me. Wurtzel is like one of those annoying adolescents who pre-empts the rejection of her peers by acting out, then wallows in self-pity because nobody wants to be her friend. She attacks the media for over-exposing Prozac--"it's turning a serious problem into a joke"--yet she was the one who called her book Prozac Nation. She complains that clinical depression has received so much press coverage she has "ceased to be this freakishly depressed person" and become "downright trendy," but that's what happens if you pose on the cover of your book wearing a kinderwhore t-shirt and an expression which, in her own words, says, "I'm depressed--fuck me." (It's like the cover of a video called Bell de Jar.) Reading the Afterword, it's as though she's forgotten she was responsible for putting the "press" into depression.
Tales of Wurtzel's drug-fueled, attention-seeking behaviour abound. At Harvard she would go up to men at parties and say, "I'm writing a book about Harvard. You're in it." She told a society writer for the New York Times that her suffering was just as meaningful as what was happening in Bosnia. When New Yorker editor Henrick Hertzberg broke off their affair shortly before she parted company with the magazine, Wurtzel tried to bring a sexual harassment suit against him. She threw a hissy fit when Mario Pulice, art director of Doubleday, showed her the cover of Bitch, demanding that her stomach be airbrushed to look more aerobicized. She posed topless for British GQ.
Needless to say, her relentless self-promotion has paid off like gangbusters. (She's the Don King of the Ivy League.) Prozac Nation sold sufficiently well, particularly in paperback, to net her a $500,000 advance for Bitch, which is being published this January. Judging from the Advance Reading Excerpt, a 52-page chapter called 'Hey Little Girl Is Your Daddy Home,' Bitch wont be any better received than her first book. It's a pseudo-feminist defence of Amy Fisher, the Long Island Lolita serving ten-to-fifteen for the attempted murder of Mary Jo Buttafuoco, on the grounds that, wouldn't you know it, she's not so very different from the way Elizabeth Wurtzel was at her age. For Amy Fisher's sake, let's hope Bitch doesn't fall into the hands of the Albion State Correctional Center's parole board.
By the time Prozac Nation hit bookstores, the blueprint for the successful Harvard non-fiction book was established. Pick a big, fat, juicy topic, preferably something to do with sex; pack in as many personal reminiscences as you can, including lots of sex; be as controversial as possible; slap a sexy picture of yourself on the jacket; and ruthlessly exploit any personal connections you have in the media to promote it, including but not limited to having sex with them. (Thernstrom, Roiphe and Wurtzel have dated so many well-known authors they should be cheerleaders at the annual Artists and Writers softball game in the Hamptons.)
This formula would be repeated again and again over the next few years by Harvard graduates. In 1996, the New Press published a book called The Sex Side of Life by Constance M. Chen. Earlier this year, Owlet published A Field Guide to North American Males by Marjorie Ingall. Also this year, Warner Books published Been There, Haven't Done That by Tara McCarthy, a tell-all memoir about clinging on to her virginity in spite of having done "everything but." Finally, this December, Warner Books will publishHe Meant/She Meant: The Definitive Male-Female Dictionary by Jenny Lyn Bader and Bill Brazell.
It's almost as if a publishing genius was flipping through the back pages of Hustler one day, stumbled upon an ad which said "Horny Coed Sluts Talk Dirty," and thought, 'That gives me an idea.' (Molly Jong-Fast, platinum-haired daughter of Erica Jong and currently a Harvard Sophomore, will no doubt make her literary debut in a year or two with a book which makes The Zipless Fuck look like The Rules.)
One inevitable question is: Why Harvard? The obvious answer is that the extensive network of Harvard graduates among the cultural elite take care of their own. "The Harvard people really look out for each other," says Vanity Fair critic James Wolcott. Another answer is that Harvard grooms its students for success. "My take on Harvard has always been that it's a consummate education in high-powered, professional networking," says a well-known New York editor. Harvard also instils its students with the necessary self-confidence to write autobiographical books while still in their twenties. "The kids who graduate from Harvard are relentlessly nurtured to believe in their own exceptionalism," says Joy De Menill, a Harvard graduate and Associate Editor at Random House. "Having been told by friends and teachers that your ideas are exquisite, that's the time you have the audacity to go ahead and publish."
In one respect, Harvard alumni are literally taught how to get their books published. Every Summer, the Radcliffe Publishing Course offers Harvard students, as well as others, a six-week program on how to pitch editors with their ideas. (Bullshit 101.) Speakers this year included Peter Kaplan, editor-in-chief of the New York Observer, Morgan Entreken, the owner of Grove/Atlantic, and the publisher of the National Inquirer. "The Radcliffe Publishing Programme is the first place editors looks for young blood," says Joy De Menill.
This leaves the question of why so many Harvard women have landed book deals recently rather than men. Perhaps the answer is that Harvard men have deemed it politic to keep a low profile these days. Unlike their female contemporaries, they can't claim to be members of a historically oppressed group. They're better off behind the scenes, where their privileged status wont attract too much attention. "I don't think anyone wants to hear from smart young men at the moment," says Daniel T. Max, a Harvard graduate who's currently unemployed.
However, for ambitious Harvard women, times have never been better. One of the most successful exponents of the non-fiction formula is J.C. Herz, a brassy South African with a gift for self-advertisement. Her first book, Surfing on the Internet, published by Little Brown in 1995, has a huge picture of her on the cover wearing a low-cut cardigan with--surprise!--nothing underneath. The blurb on the back let's you know she's a Playboy contributor and the chapter headings include 'Cross-Dressing in Cyberspace,' 'Rolling in the MUD,' and 'Cybersuicide.' Surfing on the Internet is an over-caffienated sprint through cyberspace, only pausing for breath when the subject of sex comes up which, fortunately for the rather breathless Herz, is pretty frequently.
Her follow-up, Joystick Nation, published by Little Brown earlier this year, is an equally fast-paced survey of the world of video games. (Again with the Nation?) As you might expect from the author of Surfing on the Internet--the correct phrase is 'Surfing the Net'--it's riddled with elementary misnomers. Defender was not a "shooter," for heaven's sake. It was a "shoot-'em-up."
A rare departure from the formula was Farai Chideya's Don't Believe The Hype. Chideya, a 27-year-old Harvard graduate, is a hustler without equal, even in this group. She likes to claim she was a reporter at Newsweek for four years when in fact she was an intern at Newsweek's New York office from 1990-93 and a reporter for only one year in the Washington bureau. Her website, www.popandpolitics.com, lists every single thing she's ever contributed to a national newspaper or magazine, though her by-line was often one of 13. It even includes a letter she wrote to the American Spectator.
In her website's "Bio" section, under the heading "Bookings and Appearances," Chideya provides the number of her agent. "I am available to give speeches at college campuses and corporations," she tells bewildered propeller-heads. "To inquire about or book a lecture please call Ellie Deegan at K & S Speakers: 1-800-762-4234."
Such shameless self-promotion is downright bizarre for a media professional of Chideya's standing. In addition to being a reporter for ABC News she's an award-winning magazine journalist. However, it's not all that surprising if you read Don't Believe The Hype. Published by Penguin in 1995, it's an attempt to counter widespread myths about African-Americans, part of what she describes as her "mission to destroy racial stereotypes." Chideya is the daughter of a Zimbabwean father and African-American mother who could teach Johnny Cochran a thing or two about playing the race card.
Of all the books by recent Harvard graduates, Don't Believe The Hype is the most didactic. It's over-simplified, Q-&-A structure seems intended for high school juniors rather than grown ups. Most of her arguments are designed to contradict myths that few people, other than the least educated, could possibly believe. "It may be the media's best-kept secret," she writes, "[but] the majority of violent criminals are white." Surely, few people think a majority of violent criminals are black, given that they make up only 12.5% of the population. Many of her attempts to dispel what she refers to as "cultural misinformation" end up doing the opposite. In response to the assertion that there are more black men in prison than in college, she points out that in 1991 there were only 136,000 black males of college age in prison, compared to 378,000 black males in college. In other words, it's true.
Her real agenda soon emerges. A great many of her attacks turn out to be on network television news, which she repeatedly accuses of racial bias. She quotes a Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting study which revealed that 90 percent of the guest sources on PBS's the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour and on Nightline were white. Not surprisingly, shortly after Don't Believe The Hype appeared, Chideya was recruited by CNN to be part of Inside Politics' "Gen X Team," commenting on the 1996 presidential campaign. Another of Chideya's favourite targets in the book is Time magazine, which she censures for darkening a cover picture of O.J. Simpson. Chideya now has a writing contract with Time.
Farai Chideya may well be sincere in her "mission" to combat racism in the news, but she can't be oblivious to the fact that the best way to get the media's attention is to attack it. The attitude of men like ABC News chief Roone Arledge, to paraphrase Lord Hailsham, may well be that it's better to have people like Chideya on the inside pissing out, than on the outside pissing in.
Like the other Harvard writers of her generation, chideya's attitude to the media-industrial complex is shizophrenic: on the one hand, it's responsible for a great deal of what's wrong with our society; on the other, it's their ticket to fame and fortune. The media is the good father and the bad father all rolled into one. Their feelings about it are similar to Ahab's towards the great white whale: they want to destroy it, but they need it at the same time.
Ironically, if the media's reaction to complex problems wasn't so black and white, if it's response to issues like depressive illness, date rape and racism was more measured, writers like Wurtzel, Roiphe and Chideya wouldn't get so much attention. As it is, they've each staked a claim to a hot-button issue and whenever some wretched hack on deadline needs a quote on the subject, they're the people to call. They're like champagne socialists who regard all property as theft but are waiting out the revolution in gated communities.
Ultimately, the really disheartening aspect of their success isn't that they're such nakeded opportunists--quite literally, in Elizabeth Wurtzel's case--but that they're all so mediocre. The only stand-out amongst them is Suzan Faludi, a Princeton graduate who is at least a solid reporter, thanks to a stint at the Wall St Journal. As for the rest, they really should wait a while before publishing any more autobiographical books.
Towards the end of researching this piece--having read a total of nine books--I happened to reread Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic. The effect was similar to diving into a pool in the Hamptons after a nerve-fraying, six-hour crawl up the LIE. It was like the balm Laurence Olivier gives Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man after exposing the nerves in his teeth. Staring at this pile of books, the prospect of ever having to reread them filled me with horror. It was as though Olivier was standing in front of me, holding Radical Chic in one hand and Prozac Nation in the other, asking, "Is it safe?" I have to tell you, if I knew the answer, I'd give it up in a New York minute.