'It's Controversial or No One Notices': A Chat with Elizabeth Wurtzel


One winter evening I was walking to the subway when I got a 270-word text that began, “Jia. Hi. It’s Elizabeth Wurtzel.”

I was, to put it mildly, surprised. A few weeks back, I’d been trying to set up an interview with her about her slim new book, Creatocracy. Published through none other than Thought Catalog, the book is subtitled “How the Constitution Invented Hollywood,” and it’s Wurtzel tracing America’s best inventions (“rock ’n’ roll, blue jeans, the Gold Rush, cable TV”) back to the Founding Fathers’ particular relationship to rebellion, individual ownership, and state suspicion—asserting that the Constitution’s intellectual property clause is not only the most important thing in it but also the genesis of our country’s singular, unparalleled cool.

The argument is inconsistent and selective in a way that feels deliberate: Creatocracy is copyright law explained through fireworks, a book that swivels between provocation and sweeping pronouncement in the service of a tricky historical determinism. Though there’s almost no first person, it’s a distinctly first-person piece of writing. Oversimplified, Wurtzel’s thesis is that you’re a genius if you can get everyone to look: an argument inextricable from Creatocracy’s glibness as well as her writing career at large.

I was curious. I sent her some fairly direct questions, asking about her relationship to provocation and if she really stood by the idea that America—all of it, the Wal-Marts of the rigged free market, the bruised, bigoted sense of meritocracy—was unilaterally that cool. But our interview kept getting pushed back, then it was cancelled altogether. I wasn’t surprised: I knew that she was in treatment for breast cancer, and that relatively recent personal essays had alluded to a life that was knowingly in flux; I also figured my questions (“Do you have thoughts about the fact that Thought Catalog is known for trolling?”) had put her off.

Then I got that text, in which she explained that she’d just had surgery, and that the site of her implant-preparing spacers had gotten infected, requiring another surgery and post-operative drainage. She was on a lot of medication, she said, but she still wanted to do the interview as soon as she could. We kept texting; eventually, she just invited me over. “Do you drink?” she asked. “I drink.” We both like red. I came over with tulips.

It was an unexpectedly warm day when she opened the door to her downtown apartment. Her place is dim, airy and full of beautiful personal objects: ceiling-high stacks of CDs and records, plants, candles, figurines, curios, pictures and books (many of which depict her, or are her own). She was wearing a loose dress, tall boots; her hair fell long and flaxy on her shoulders. Her fiancé—younger, radiating care—was getting ready to go for a run.

I asked her how she was feeling. She kept calling breast cancer “annoying,” which she had done repeatedly in texts—downplaying it, like she does in this Vice piece. (“You go in with breast cancer and come out with stripper boobs.”) She told me it’s mostly a matter of a lot of time spent on the train to get uptown. I ended up staying at her apartment for more than two hours, eating cheese and crackers, drinking wine. She asked me a lot about myself—my boyfriend, Gawker Media, my neighborhood in New York—and listened carefully to my answers. When I turned on my tape recorder, her fiancé was heading out to refill her Percocet prescription, which got us talking about drugs, oxycontin in particular.

“I don’t know why that’s the one that gets people addicted to heroin,” she said. “They all have the same ingredient, don’t they? And I just had serious surgery, so if they’re not giving it to me, who are they giving it to?”

I told her about the FDA oxy crackdown, and how for a couple of years, one county in Florida had prescribed a startling amount of the oxy distributed in the United States.

“One day I want to write a book about Florida,” she said.

You should.

In a way, I already have. I published a book about being a drug addict in Florida. I went down meaning to stay for two weeks, but I was a drug addict, so I ended up staying for a year. I’m trying to remember how that happened. I guess that’s just the kind of thing that happens.

Let’s talk about Creatocracy. I enjoyed reading it a lot, and thought that if anyone could make people read about copyright law, it would be you.

I don’t really think it’s about that.

What do you think it’s about?

Well, it’s kind of about copyright law, I guess. It’s because of our Founders that there’s intellectual property in the Constitution, and it’s because of intellectual property that this country has turned out a certain way—and really, that the world has turned out a certain way.

I don’t think the Founders were imagining Hollywood, Silicon Valley. I don’t think they could have imagined that. But they bothered to put intellectual property in the Constitution, which is not common. There are Constitutions that have been written quite recently that don’t include intellectual property. It seems to me that intellectual property the most important thing we have in the Constitution—and the most important thing we have going. What else do we do here? We don’t manufacture anything anymore. All we do is invent things.

In your book, you say America is the most inventive country in the world—but then you also say our creativity is being degraded, particularly with music.

It does seem like a lot of the stuff we do best has been thoroughly degraded. But we’ll come up with something else.

When people were connected by music in this country, it was a better time. We were happier, more connected to each other. We’re now connected by Facebook, by things that are not as lovely. And it’s crazy to think we’re going to save everything we’re losing, because there’s no impulse towards saving them. Like streaming music: it’s not paying. These industries are going to die, because no one’s doing anything real to save them. You need to pay people the money they deserve to do what they do—and I mean serious money. Musicians need to be paid the way people at Google are paid. What do people pay for streaming?

$10 a month, ish.

That’s not enough.

I’m curious about your idea of a bygone age. I grew up in a different generation than you, but I feel exactly the way you do about music. What you call a lost experience has been my actual, recent experience. Music is the primary way I’ve connected to a lot of my friends, for example—probably the most important thing in my life. But under your conception, I couldn’t understand it in the same way; I missed the good era. You don’t think young people today could have the same relationship to music that you did when you were younger?

Maybe, but I doubt it. They don’t have the kind of choices. They don’t have as much being offered to them.

I’d argue they have more choices, in a way, if the choices are produced differently.

They’re not buying albums.

That’s true. I haven’t bought many albums. Just concert tickets.

I feel they’re not getting infused with it.

Do you listen to anything that’s on Top 40 now?

I never listened to anything on top 40, ever. I always listened to rock music, which was never top 40. Nirvana got popular, but that was a surprise, and other than “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” they didn’t have hit songs. Hole didn’t have many hit songs, either, and I loved them.

But I buy plenty of new albums. I just bought Emmylou Harris’s new album. I just bought six hours worth of unreleased Bob Dylan basement tapes. I like a lot of alt-country stuff. I got Arcade Fire recently.

Maybe you’d like Tame Impala. They’ve been doing a lot for rock.

I read somewhere that your musical taste stops changing at 26.

Was that true for you?

Maybe. I still like new music all the time—but it’s mostly stuff I’ve always liked, and I just like more of it. And there’s stuff I missed. I never listened to the Beatles much, but it turns out they’re really awesome.

The truth is, the very best stuff was made probably in the ‘60s. We haven’t evolved very much.

Yeah, I was listening to Prince last weekend and having similar thoughts. But so, your book: when did you decide to write it and do it through Thought Catalog?

Well, at first it was a paper I wrote in law school. I didn’t think it was a book at all. It was my final paper for law school, and actually, when I first got out of law school, I gave it to David Blum at Amazon—he wanted to publish it as it was as a Kindle Single. I didn’t think that was a good idea; I thought it needed to be updated and made smoother.

And then I kind of forgot about it, and I wrote something for Thought Catalog and I showed this to them, and they thought it would make a good e-book. But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a book. I might have underestimated it. Thought Catalog isn’t a book publisher, they’re a website. Maybe it should have really been a book, I don’t know.

Do you have plans to write another book proper?

I do have memoir plans. I thought about doing some kind of fiction, but I think memoir is what people like me doing. I wrote a piece for New York a few years ago when things were really bad. I thought, people liked that—that’s really what people like me doing.

People are fascinated by you; why do you think that is?

I think I remind people of themselves.

You’re honest.

I think I have the same problems everyone else has. Not exactly, but kind of. It turns out that cancer is very common—maybe the most normal thing that’s happened to me. It’s unbelievably common.

And really, most of the things that have happened to me, they happen to everybody. The one thing I shouldn’t feel about anything that happens to me is ashamed. Who doesn’t get all messed up with this or that thing?

But it’s not just that. I think people are also interested in what about you is not relatable. Was the NYMag piece the one you wrote about beauty?

No, that was the one for Elle: looking back at different boyfriends, feeling like I was getting older. I liked that one. That’s really what I wanted to turn into a book.

But now I’m getting married—even though I’m still the same. It just turns out that when you’re ready to get married, you get married.

What made you ready?

The truth is, that whole thing I wrote about in NYMag [a period in which a previous tenant of her apartment semi-stalked her] was really awful. It made me think I should straighten out my life. You can just decide enough is enough. You can really have that moment.

Did that moment feel unexpected?

No. When I was younger, I thought enough was enough quite often! But it turned out it wasn’t. I enjoyed things being crazy. People who are not married really enjoy the headache. They’re into the whole mess.

Now I just can’t imagine anything worse. I’m not even interested in happy drama. We’ve been talking about our wedding, and he says, “I hope it’s going to be the most amazing day of our life.” I don’t want that at all. I just want it to be a good day. I don’t want any “most amazing” anything ever again. I’m done with most amazing. I think I’ve had the most amazing day a lot of times. I’m through with all of that.

I know what it means to him, and that’s fine, but I don’t even want to humor him about it.

I think another reason that people have always been interested in your writing is because of the way you look. I assume that people were intrigued by you being beautiful, and also skeptical of your writing because of it.

I don’t read my own press. I don’t know what people think of my books.

But you know what I mean. You were on the cover of your books, you’re on the cover of this one…

I see what you mean, but I don’t think about it very much.

Did you ever hesitate to put your face on the cover of things?

I thought of it as just making it more personal. It was like an album cover. The idea was that you should care about the author. If people care about the author, they’ll care about the book. I didn’t think I should be on the cover of this book, but they wanted it, and that’s fine.

I wanted Prozac Nation to be relatable. There’s this idea that authors are supposed to be hidden, and it’s all about the book. But the reason people don’t care so much about reading is that they don’t care much about the person who wrote the book. Once upon a time, they did. People read confessional poetry, and Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were famous, and then Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell came along and replaced them. If you’re competing with albums, you have to do the same thing. You have to make people feel like you’re there.

But you’re not just any writer showing her face; your looks are of the type that could make your project both immediately celebrated and immediately dismissed. Did you ever think you were setting yourself up for judgment in either direction?

I’m sure people did judge me. I know they did. It was very frustrating. There wasn’t Twitter or anything like that, so it wasn’t as bad as it could be now. But people gave me a hard time all the time: like at the New Yorker, there were constantly people giving me a hard time about stuff I’d write in my columns that was all totally fine. It was very obviously sexism. I’m not sure if it was the way I looked, even. Maybe just that I was young, and people thought I was getting away with something.

Right: either way, that’s the bottom line.

I don’t think there’s anything you can do about it. Actually, you can complain about it. But then you sound like you’re complaining, and it’s not good to complain. It definitely made me pretty crazy—I took it out in other ways, I acted out a lot. But it was easy to bring out bad things in me, because I was emotionally troubled for all sorts of reasons anyway.

Once I wrote my book, which was about being crazy, it stopped bothering me. Even when I got terrible reviews, I don’t think it was because people had issues with me. It was with the writing. I suppose it’s me as far as I’m the one that did the writing, but it’s legitimate criticism, because it keeps happening. It’s not unfair. They’re getting it from somewhere. Is it purely about the text? No—but so what?

And if your stance in Creatocracy is your stance, you don’t really care. The style and the argument and who you are as a writer seemed intertwined: to oversimplify, you’ve made it if people are paying attention.

I think controversial is the closest you can get to everyone agreeing with you. Either you’re controversial, or nothing at all is happening. No one is universally praised.

Do you know when you’re going to be controversial?

It seems like my writing always is. Either it’s controversial, or no one notices.

So you don’t write to be controversial, but you don’t care that you are.

There’s no way to make everybody love you.

I think there are plenty of writers who would strive for everybody loving them, particularly with social media, maybe particularly in the “women’s media” sphere I work in. Making your flaws known in a vulnerable way is for some people connected to that goal. I wonder: what would have happened if you’d written Prozac Nation when Twitter was around?

It was pretty nutty as is, so I imagine it would have been even more nutty. But I have good friends and I like being with them. I’m not terribly tempted by whatever it is I could get out of Twitter. I’m on it, but I never look at it. I’ve noticed this idea that Facebook is so five years ago, but I feel like it has more impact. If I want to spread the news, it’s better to do it there.

It’s like that for web traffic too. Facebook is the one.

Why is that?

The mystical algorithm, the size of people’s networks, I’m not sure.

I just feel like Twitter is useless. And if I post anything at all on Facebook, people are really responsive. It’s people you have a relationship with, and with Twitter, the followers thing—what is that? It’s bizarre. It seems not very useful.

What’s your relationship like with the internet?

I have almost no relationship with the internet. I read the Times every day online. I feel like everyone should do that. I’m really wary that one day there will be no New York Times. I tell people to subscribe, because how else are you going to know why things are the way they are? If you read the Times, you’ll know everything.

[ I excuse myself to go to the bathroom, and when I come out, Elizabeth asks me if I survived it in there. “I hope the cat’s litter didn’t need to be changed,” she said.]

I’m very down with pet stuff, I’ve got this monster dog at home.

My dog just died. That’s the one thing I can’t handle. I’m fine with cancer, but that was really the worst thing. She died in January. It’s been awful. She had cancer, actually.

Jesus. Had you been diagnosed when you found out?

Yeah, I’d found out about me in early January, and about her in mid-December. And it was a blood thing for her, it was too late to do anything.

What kind of a dog was she?

A mix, a border collie. I was very, very attached to her. I got her when I was 36 and she was just a baby. Dogs are so wonderful—they’re definitely improvements over humans. I trained her to be a therapy dog, and she walked without a leash. She used to come on the subway.

What was her personality like?

She was very funny. She would sit on the couch like a person and she would imitate people. She was very smart, and very funny. She made people laugh.

What was her name?

Augusta. I never went anywhere without her. And it’s strange now, because I’m home a lot, without her.

Are you working on anything right now or waiting till you’re done with treatment?

Waiting. I’m still on Cipro, and all that.

I’m wondering about how you write: quick, or slow, or many drafts, or what?

I can write a 1000-word piece really fast, or a first draft. But I go back and fix a lot of things. I’m really fussy about getting every word to be the right word. You have to do that. Every word counts. If you care about words, you can’t even be sloppy about text messages, you can’t be sloppy about anything. You have to care about words all the time.

That’s the one thing I ever got about reading anything by Malcolm Gladwell, the 10,000-hour thing. It used to be that writing felt like a massive struggle. Now it’s not.

But there’s one thing: I have been trying desperately to write something about Augusta, but I can’t do it without crying. Which really means I shouldn’t do it. You shouldn’t write because you’re full of feelings. You write because it’s work.

It never felt like you were writing your feelings when you were writing memoir?

No, because at that point, it was just hard work. When you’re writing purely emotional stuff, it’s just never good. With Augusta, I think it might be coming out okay—but I’m just in tears. All I can say is that she’s the best thing that ever happened to me, which is true. And still, there’s a better way to say it, but I just can’t.

I tried to explain this to Jim last night: the reason I love her so much, the reason there’s no human that can compare to this. It’s that you get a puppy, and it’s no fun. They make a mess of your house. It’s really hard work—it’s not easy—and it’s lucky that they’re cute, but mostly they’re not cute. They make you get up really early, and they need to be walked in the middle of the night, and they eat everything, and it feels like it’s never going to get better. And it doesn’t get better for a long time. It’s a huge commitment. I had no time for anything else but taking care of Augusta when I got her.

Then she calmed down, and then I missed how crazy she was, and we were just great friends for most of her life. And I just can’t explain it without crying. I can’t get another dog now because I have a whole bunch of stuff to go through, so I don’t have enough time—

You mean treatment-wise?

Yeah, but as soon as I’m done I’ll get another dog. I have to have chemotherapy first. I start in April. I wish I was the kind of person who could transform your life so that you don’t need chemotherapy, but I’m not. And I guess if they say you need it, you probably do.

Your book is about talent, but you don’t spend that much time talking about who you think is actually talented.

I think a lot of people are really talented. The last book I read was Martin Amis’s book about Auschwitz, and I loved it. I couldn’t put it down. He’s always great. But really, I learned to write from listening to music, which, thank god—people love listening to music, but they don’t love reading. Music is a better way to learn things.

I feel the same way, maybe—I don’t know if I know exactly what you mean.

I read a lot, growing up, but I really was a music fan. That’s really what I wanted to do, but I just didn’t have that kind of talent. I don’t mean that I literally learned to write from music—probably I learned to write from things I read. But I just thought that the best thing ever would be to be a rock star. I idolized Bruce Springsteen. I thought he did everything right. His whole thing is connecting to people. He’s unapologetically sappy.

The music industry has the better idea. In 1994, when I was thinking about Prozac Nation, they were selling lots of albums, and the book industry was a mess, like it always is. Even when the book industry was doing well, they were doing badly. Today, Amazon is not the problem; Amazon’s probably helped.

So I never understood writers who said they didn’t want to do press, that wanted to be a special hidden figure. As a writer, you’re lucky that people like what you do. It’s weird that you wouldn’t at every opportunity try to connect with the people who love your work. Books are things people should like. It’s bad if we start thinking about the publishing industry as special. It’s not special. That’s why I wanted to be on the cover of my books, because I wanted people to know who I was and who they were reading. I always thought the more it was like music, the better it would be. And my publishers didn’t think a memoir was a good idea, and look!

Do you ever feel like you presaged the personality-driven aspects of the internet?

It’s so over the top. We’ve turned into a complete culture of personality. This is how fame has become a disorder: when you get something that you haven’t earned, you go crazy.

Was it weird for you to get famous?

I’m not really famous.

I think you’re kind of famous.

It hasn’t made me not me. Not even when Prozac Nation came out. I was still taking out the garbage. And it happened in pieces. First I was writing at the New Yorker, I’d gotten attention in college for things I’d done there. You sort of start to expect it. But maybe I could have done the more clever thing and branded myself more.

Well, I don’t think you really had to. What you did was pretty distinct, and now some version of your style is kind of ubiquitous in some arenas.

But what’s going to happen to people who have invented themselves on the internet, and then are going to try to do something legitimate—I mean, what’s going to happen to Cat Marnell?

Oh yeah, I bet everyone’s always comparing you guys.

I’ve met her, and I wonder if she’s capable of sustaining a narrative over the course of a book.

She has charisma.

That doesn’t mean she can write a book. That’s the thing. You can’t just invent yourself on Instagram and that’s it. It’s weird: what will she do? Maybe nothing. Maybe this will all fall apart.

I’d be interested to read her book.

But what could she possibly say? What is there to say?

Ideally, I guess, what she would be doing is something similar to what you did, right? That she would be Zeitgeisty in a similar way?

What is she supposedly writing a book about?

I think: being young, taking speed. I don’t really know.

I guess you could get a book out of that. You could get a book out of anything.

And you want to do another one.

I do. There’s always something. Now there’s this. Now, when I was thinking that nothing was going on, suddenly I have breast cancer.

But I don’t want to write a book about breast cancer. It’s already been done, just very badly. You do have to be funny on this topic. It’s the stupidest thing to have happen to you. Heaven forbid you think this makes you a better person. If all this stuff doesn’t make you a worse person—I mean, it’s very annoying. How could it not make you annoyed? If I don’t come out of this a worse person, what’s wrong with me?

Have you read that Meghan Daum essay about her near-death experience?

No. Did she become a worse person? I like her essays.

I do too. It wasn’t that—it’s in her new collection, The Unspeakable, where she almost dies at the end of this essay called “Matricide” that’s ostensibly about mothers, and matriarchal antagonism, and then suddenly at the end she gets this crazy illness and almost dies. People starts treating her like a spiritual object, and she’s like, “Leave me alone, I’m embarrassed.”

Someone sent me this horrible e-card telling me to “relax and recuperate.” I can’t believe I didn’t respond by saying, “FUCK YOU.” It’s really demeaning. Sympathy cards—who needs your sympathy? Sympathy is an insult. One thing you don’t need or want is sympathy.

There’s a personality type that wants it.


I think a lot of people!

I really don’t want anyone’s sympathy. I did when I was depressed. Now all these people with their fucking sympathy cards—I want to say to them, where were you when I needed you, when I could not stop crying for 10 years? That was bad. This is whatever. I’m getting the best fucking care from people who are not you, because you’re not an oncologist, you’re just the person sending me these fucking sympathy cards.

Right. You’ve been through your ordeal already.

Yeah, thank god I went through all that, because I’m fine now. And I don’t need your sympathy card!

Do you feel like that period of your life has already eclipsed this thing that’s currently happening to you?

This is nothing. Everything is nothing after all that. Everything. Whatever is coming my way in the future is nothing.

Having serious emotional problems is really hard. Insurance doesn’t cover it, nobody cares, you are not a sympathetic person at all, you’re awful. No one wants to help you. I’m pretty good at making people somehow help me anyway, and still no one cared. Somehow I was amazingly demanding, and I found people who gave me incredible help. But it was awful, it’s the worst kind of problem to have, because you’re awful, you’re hideous. And you’re really in pain. Unbelievable pain that no one cares about, you can’t even find it in yourself to care about. You just want to die.

And if you can find a way to get out of that, which most people don’t—most people find a way to keep going underneath all of it, somehow—then everything after that is easy. Even this is not that bad. They have cold caps now, so you don’t lose all your hair.

That’s good. You have really good hair. Were you worried about that?

Yes, but I’m not anymore. And even if I end up losing all my hair—compared to everything I’ve ever had to deal with, that’s something I can deal with. I have been so unimaginably sad, felt so terrible. I can’t ever imagine ever feeling as bad as I felt before. I figure it only gets better.

Creatocracy is available through Thought Catalog here.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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