Vice grip

Sure, we all love stories of degradation and vice, especially when the storyteller has a pretty face. But how many bad-girl memoirs do we need, anyway?

By Lily Burana

Published March 4, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

if culture in the '90s suffers from an aesthetic disease, it's a crippling case of "realness." Television has a stubborn rash of hyper-confessional talk shows, celebrities in every medium are obsessed with street cred and the publishing industry is fixated on the memoir. The latest mutant strain of this malady is a publishing phenomenon known colloquially as the "bad-girl memoir," and it's quintessentially Real(TM): The authors are real attractive, their life stories are real lurid, and those two elements combined make their books real marketable.

It all started with the stunning success of Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Prozac Nation" (Doubleday, 1994), a bestselling memoir that chronicled the author's troubles with depression and indiscriminate fellatio dispensation. Since then, we've faced a glut of confessionals that leave no taboo untapped: from alcoholism (Caroline Knapp's "Drinking: A Love Story") to teenage delinquency (Jill Ciment's "Half a
Life") to adult incest (Kathryn Harrison's "The Kiss"). It's all about ugly behaviors in pretty packages, bound in ribbons of sexual tension -- and it's all anyone I know in books is talking about.

The iconography of the Bad Girl is nothing new. From Carole Baker making mincemeat of her thumb in "Baby Doll" to the sullen party teens in current fashion advertising, the combination of beauty, youth and tragedy is irresistible. Everyone loves a perky-titted wreck, and mistakes are endearing in the unseasoned. If a young woman assumes a tattered-hem, hardscrabble stance, I usually suck it up like a sick little milkshake. I want to bind her bleeding wrists, trounce her perpetrators, raid her closet and, of course, hear her secrets. I'm glad that female writers are artfully revealing that young womanhood can be a pretty gruesome business, and doing so without the conventional posture of defeat or moral repentance.

Publishing wags and armchair critics harrumph that these writers are producing nothing more than carefully orchestrated burlesque shows -- a double crime of market-savvy and exhibitionism. Feh, I say, particularly on the latter charge. To criticize an artist for being an exhibitionist is like criticizing a bird for having wings; it's pointless to damn the design.

The problem is there's just too damn much of this stuff. I want to be sisterly and supportive, but already I'm oversaturated. As ever more troubled women spleen their way across the page, the genre seems less edgily refreshing and more like a precocious 3-year-old pulling her dress up over her head again and again to show her bloomers to the dinner guests. Widget & Grommit Publishers presents the release of Tragic Teenage Fuckdoll Memoir #27753b? Oh joy.

This spate of memoirs has also generated rumblings of distaste among my female writer friends. Not because we're so damn pure -- most of us were jettisoned from the "girls you take home to meet Mom" list years ago, and have bared soul and flesh as writers and may well do so again. Our collective gripe is that the trend seems to have upped the ante for entree into the literary big time: tell-all to sell-all -- or forget it. But what if you don't want to build your future on your checkered past? What if you're one of the three people left on the planet who believes there's more power in a persona built on mystery than on wholesale revelation? It's hard to not feel deep-gut twinges when Jane Random-Freelancer gets a six-figure deal based on an article she wrote about, say, giving a hand job to her sadistic Comp Lit professor her freshman year at Brown, while you're filing birdseed reviews for Wren Weekly and worrying about the bills. Months later, you're still piddling away in near-obscurity, and she's looking bookishly wanton and consumptive in her author photo in "Hot Type."

Well, why shouldn't a hungry writer make hay of her bawdy youthful mishaps? After all, controversy makes a mighty fine calling card. One reason is that you may never really know whether your writing is popular for its literary merit or just its prurient appeal. That creates all sorts of subtle neuroses, especially in a young writer. There's also something inherently creepy about turning your own life into a car crash for the literate rubbernecker. Not to mention the fact that coming out with a tell-all early in your career is like coming onstage screaming. What the hell do you do for an encore?

And of course, there's the bothersome youth-'n'-beauty angle. Beauty was never a liability in a writer, but these days, especially for women, it seems more like a necessity. No longer is writing the last vestige of the famously lumpen, a welcoming haven for the pithy wart hog. Now writers are considering collagen and facing age-panic at 35. Imagine if it had always been this way: "Eudora's prose is solid; pity she doesn't have a more market-friendly look." "Truman's latest is totally creamy, but get him off the fois gras, willya?" I mean, really. If I can't get wrinkles and a fat ass, you can keep your publishing revolution.

Like all literary frenzies, this, too, shall pass. But not before some poor sucker, like the unsuspecting victim of a publishing industry pyramid scam, gets her tell-all to market too late and spills her guts right into the remainders bin. Seems to me life as a writer is hard enough without the cheapening effect of being swept into a cattle-call of human misery, however gifted and comely the company. Doubtless, however, others will rush to join the herd. Meanwhile, my friends and I are sitting uneasily on the sidelines, our lives in our laps, waiting to see what comes next.

Lily Burana

Lily Burana is the author of four books, most recently, “Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith” (W/Harper). Follow her @lilyburana

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