Sex, drugs and another dose of literary hysterics

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The Independent Online

I have, so far as I recall, kept nude photographs of only one author. It happened during the 1990s when someone called Elizabeth Wurtzel was in England promoting her first book, Prozac Nation. While being interviewed for a men's lifestyle magazine, Wurtzel decided to be more self-revealing than is traditional on these occasions. When the photographer turned up, she stripped off for a series of unscheduled candid shots. I found the results rather more interesting than most author profiles, and for several weeks kept them among my papers for occasional reference.

This confession, mildly embarrassing as it may be, is not in the same league as the kind of revelation on which Elizabeth (somehow I feel we are on first-name terms) has built her career. In Prozac Nation, she recounted self-destructive adventures with cocaine, men and therapy during her teens and twenties which had led to an addiction to Prozac. The book was written in over-heated but workmanlike prose and, had she been a bloke, or plain, or middle-aged, it would hardly have been publishable.

But Elizabeth was a babe. She was prepared to dish intimate details about herself for journalists, give photographers a few literary skin shots. The book became a bestseller and its author was described as "the voice of generation."

The ploy worked so well that Elizabeth appeared, cute as ever, on the cover of her next book Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. She was topless, of course, but, as a small concession to seriousness, her nipples had been airbrushed out – "Elizabeth doesn't have any nipples," her publisher told a reporter when the publicity wagon began to roll again. The content of Bitch was consistent with its presentation. "Feminist writing has become dry. I want to make it wet again," Elizabeth announced.

After drugs and sex, where does a modern author go? Back to more drugs and sex, of course. This week, a new work from Elizabeth Wurtzel is in the bookshops, recounting her latest addiction, this time to Ritalin, the drug given to hyperactive children. The thought, heartless but irresistible, occurs that professionally this was a neat career move, conforming perfectly to what a publisher wants from an author – the same formula as before, but slightly different.

What is interesting about Elizabeth's progress is precisely that her version of emotional porn, the hysterical yet glamorising exploitation of one's own darker secrets, is so sensationally successful. To judge by a lengthy newspaper extract, the new book More, Now, Again is no better written than a promising adolescent's diary, yet its author has been reviewed in Time magazine and interviewed on CNN, while her book has been serialised in an allegedly serious British broadsheet.

A brief visit to one of the numerous websites devoted to her life and works reveals where her appeal lies. A fan, Heather, writes that "each large paragraph I devour gets me one leap closer to being me." Another message, headed "A cry for help", is from Jeanette: " i don't know why i cry, can't sleep or concentrate but i'm getting tired. Slowly i'm dying but i'm still trying at 14 to find happiness."

This, surely, is a profitable new publishing genre in the making. If Heather and Jeanette are pretty and ambitious, they too might one day turn their intimate secrets into literary gold. If, as seems more likely, they are neither of these things, they will at least have the dubious reassurance that addiction is sexy, that confession, pushed far enough, could make you the voice of a generation.

Meanwhile, my former pin-up is offering her views on virtually anything. In Manhattan during the attack on the World Trade Centre, she later revealed that she felt not the slightest emotional reaction. "I thought, 'This is a really strange arts project.'" Those following her literary career might reach a similar conclusion.

terblacker@aol.com

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