BOOKS: Do we all want to be Courtney?

BITCH: In Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel Quartet pounds 12.50
Elizabeth Wurtzel, for those who don't remember, is the young New Yorker rock critic whose 1994 memoir, Prozac Nation, offered a wry, intelligent commentary on her experience of depression and soon became a bestseller. No doubt her publishers hope for a repeat performance with her second book. The question is whether she can transfer her talents to the less subjective genre of cultural criticism.

Bitch argues that, despite the practical achievements of feminism, the division of women into madonnas and whores, good girls and bitches is still endemic to contemporary American society. If a woman wants to assert her autonomy, make demands and acknowledge her desires to the full, she can only do so by the dangerous strategy of adopting what Wurtzel calls the "bitch" persona and risking either demonisation or self-destruction. The glamour attached to rebels such as Courtney Love, or casualties such as Sylvia Plath, stems from the fact that while most women are still routinely conditioned into niceness, these icons can be seen as giving voice to those aspects of female desire and rage which - even now - cannot be expressed in any socially sanctioned, normalised way. As Wurtzel puts it, "The bitch as role model, as icon and idea, has moments of style and occasions of substance ... but quite often reveals itself to be about genuine anger, disturbance, fear."

Wurtzel runs into trouble, however, by subtitling her book "In Praise of Difficult Women", as if it were a manifesto urging us to imitate the iconic figures it catalogues. These range so widely - from the Biblical Delilah to Nicole Brown Simpson, from Madonna to Margaux Hemingway, from Edie Sedgwick to Hillary Clinton - that it is hard to see what, if anything, they have in common. In many cases, Wurtzel seems unclear as to whether we should be celebrating these women as heroines or martyrs, or regretting the fact that social pressures forced them to adopt extreme behaviour.

Can the "bitch" truly achieve the untrammelled exercise of free will, as Wurtzel sometimes seems to imply? Or is she colluding with a misogynistic culture by agreeing to occupy the space marked "outlaw" in which society has always accommodated deviant female behaviour? Should we all be bitches, or should we, on the other hand, be trying to change society? Wurtzel's own uncertainty is most strikingly apparent in the contradiction between her provocative decision to pose nude on the cover of her book, and her attack on Camille Paglia for being "so stupid" as to suggest that strippers might be empowered rather than degraded by taking off their clothes in public.

The best chapter in this uneven book explores the case of Amy Fisher, the adolescent girl from Long Island, who shot and wounded her middle- aged lover's wife and was transformed by the media into a villainess of epic proportion. He received far more sympathetic treatment - despite the fact that he had been pimping his underage mistress out to his friends. Wurtzel shows admirable compassion in presenting Amy as a confused and pathetic victim rather than the terrifying sexual predator of popular belief, and she is convincing in her deconstruction of the public hysteria surrounding the case.

On the whole, though, the book lacks analytical focus and fails to unite its case studies into a clear-cut polemic. The tone of voice lurches between genuine moral urgency and the kitschly alliterative style of cheap fashion copy. Wurtzel presumably thinks she's being smart and sassy to use phrases like "pussy power" and "difficult dames", but they just sound tacky and embarrassing. She often seems too caught up in chasing one-liners to construct a sustained argument. When the contest calls for an unequivocal statement of her position, she defines what she calls her "bitch philosophy" in such crass and ungrammatical language that she makes the Spice Girls sound like Simone de Beauvoir: "I intend to do what I want to do and be whom [sic] I want to be" (such freedom, apparently, means the right "to throw tantrums in Bloomingdales if I feel like it").

This isn't the only example of sloppy grammar: the prose is marred by stylistic infelicities, repetitions, and contradictions. In her Acknowledgements, Wurtzel pays tribute to her editors' patience, but the rambling, inconclusive nature of the text suggests that, on the contrary, they were so keen to get the book on the shelves that they have allowed it to be published prematurely.