Can a Neurotic Young New Yorker Teach You About Life? Lena Dunham Thinks So

The writer, actor and producer bares all in a memoir/self-help guide for which she received a $3.5 million dollar advance at the tender age of 26.

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
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Lena Dunham arrive at the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Aug. 25, 2014, in Los Angeles.
Lena Dunham arrive at the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Aug. 25, 2014, in Los Angeles.Credit: AP
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

Three and a half million dollars — that is the advance Lena Dunham received for the publication of her first book, "Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s 'Learned'" (Random House). Dunham’s memoir takes inspiration from the book "Having It All" by the late Helen Gurley Brown, who advised women “who won't settle for less than the best” based on her experience as the legendary editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine and was a prominent figure in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the 1970s.

The blurb on the cover of Brown’s book, which was published in 1982, reads: “You too can have it all: love, success, sex and money.” But while Brown celebrated her 60th birthday the year she wrote her feminist guide, Dunham received her controversial advance at 26, and the emotionally-charged reactions to her contract with Random House have not stopped in the two years since then. On the contrary: after three successful seasons of the HBO television series "Girls," for which Dunham is chief screenwriter, actress and executive producer, it seems that one need only mention her name to get millions of her fans and detractors up on their feet. And it seems that the older Dunham gets, the larger each camp becomes.

The book’s subtitle, "A Young Woman Tells You What She’s 'Learned,'" with the quotation marks around the last word, prepares readers for the experience in store for them: a collection of memories, stories and diary excerpts in which Dunham shares her insights with us while she reflects obsessively about the pretensions and problems involved in writing a book of memoirs during the third decade of one’s life. The combination of self-awareness with a writing style that is witty, personal and highly revealing is evident in a chapter that deals with her complex relationship with the world of psychology. The chapter, parts of which were published in The New Yorker in early September, begins with a confession. “I am eight, and I am afraid of everything. The list of things that keep me up at night includes but is not limited to: appendicitis, typhoid, leprosy, unclean meat, foods I haven’t seen emerge from their packaging, foods my mother hasn’t tasted first so that if we die we die together, homeless people, headaches, rape, kidnapping, milk, the subway, sleep.”

As a result of this chain of neuroses, Dunham’s parents — painter Carroll Dunham and artist and photographer Laurie Simmons — sent her to her first therapist when she was nine years old. She says that despite her young age, “I have only the vaguest memory of a life before fear.” Later in the chapter, she describes in great detail her meetings with other therapists and the long-term, significant connection she developed with a psychologist named Lisa. In a coincidence that looks like it came out of a movie rather than real life, Dunham describes how she ran into Lisa’s daughter, a girl her own age named Audrey who was also growing up among New York’s elite, and how they met again in college and became close friends. The ending is a classic Dunham moment: after Audrey has her tonsils out, Dunham goes to the hospital to visit her and finds herself sharing candy and stories from college in the same four-poster bed with Audrey and Lisa, her former psychologist.

Even though Dunham has a talent for writing and absolute control over the various registers of the English language, one cannot help but wonder whether a similar story by a lesser-known writer would have gotten two two-page spreads in one of the most important magazines in the U.S. The answer, of course, is no. One might still claim that the positive reception Dunham’s book has been getting even before it is published — support that includes a long and flattering article in The New York Times this month and an interview on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" — has more to do with her status as a celebrity than with her lineage and economic background. For the sake of comparison, James Franco’s book of semi-autobiographical short stories got respectable and flattering exposure that had more to do with his status as a Hollywood star than with the literary quality of his writing, as did the well-publicized biography of Morrissey, which came out recently. In all these cases, the works got recognition not necessarily for the quality of their writing, but for the glimpse they provided into the private lives of the famous people, for whom exposure is an integral part of life.

Encouragement from Nora Ephron

Interestingly, Dunham uses the literary platform Random House gave her to emphasize the controversial parts of her biography and answer the critics who were in a hurry to brand her as a rich, privileged, narcissistic white girl with a world view as narrow as an ant’s. In another chapter, she writes: “Once I had a vegan dinner party which was chronicled for the style section of The New York Times.” Later, she admits: “When I got to college I suddenly had the sense that my upbringing hadn’t been very ‘real.’”

The whole book contains countless details that seem to me like they would be of interest only to Dunham’s most devoted fans. She shared her parents’ bed until she was 12 years old (and then moved to the bed of her sister, who was six years younger); at 13, she began taking medication for anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (the drugs made her sleepy and dulled her senses); she went to the same summer camp that her mother had attended; she went out with a boy who kept his sneakers on during sex; and she told her mother that she had found the love of her life (Jack Antonoff, the lead guitarist of the indie rock band Fun., with whom she has been living since 2012) by saying: “I met this guy, and he’s obsessed with dying, too, and he lives in his parents’ house!”

In that sense, the story behind the book is more interesting than the literary text itself because it expresses the collection of circumstances that transformed Dunham from an independent artist — who directed her first feature film, "Tiny Furniture" (2010), which had a budget of $25,000 — to one of the most prominent artists in contemporary American culture, whose writing The New York Times has compared with that of J.D. Salinger and Woody Allen.

Dunham says that she got the idea to write the book in 2012. After the impressive success of "Tiny Furniture," the American screenwriter Nora Ephron ("When Harry Met Sally") wrote her an email encouraging her to keep making films. Dunham, who describes herself as a huge fan of Ephron, wrote her a long email in response, and over the next two years they became close friends. When Dunham was asked to write a eulogy for Ephron in The New Yorker in June 2012, she wrote a 2,000-word article that got enthusiastic responses.

David Remnick, the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, was impressed with the style of Dunham’s writing and invited her to dinner at his home. During the meal he asked her whether she was working on any literary projects. According to the article in The New York Times, after Dunham showed him some excerpts of her writing that stretched over several years, he put her in contact with Random House, and in October 2012 she signed a contract promising her millions of dollars in exchange for her memoir — the self-conscious life story of a neurotic New Yorker in her 20s.

While the facts cannot be disputed, Dunham’s fans and critics have been arguing over the interpretation ever since. Does the scandalously large advance for a first book indicate recognition of Dunham’s talent as a writer and an artist following the success of "Tiny Furniture" and "Girls," or is this yet another privilege given to someone young and well-connected whose parents are prominent figures in the American art world? As always with Lena Dunham, the answer is “All of the above.” On the one hand, as a person who has written, produced and starred in every season of "Girls," Dunham has proven over the years that she is a hardworking and prolific artist who can deliver the goods. On the other hand, according to the excerpts of her book that have been published up to now, she would be the first to admit that her unique life story and the fact that she grew up in a Soho loft (her parents recently moved to a spacious home in Williamsburg) prepared her for a creative career and opened doors that other young artists must knock on for years.

A launch with messages of social justice

As is fitting for Dunham, who reinvented the presentation of the female body in "Girls" and is known for her fondness for slaughtering sacred cows, her book’s official launch is unlike anything else. Instead of holding two or three evenings of readings at bookstores in New York, San Francisco and other major cities, Dunham and her sister Grace, an artist and Planned Parenthood activist, have decided to use the opportunity to promote not only the book, but also social issues such as reproductive rights, the need to providing sex education and contraceptives to women and raising awareness of Planned Parenthood’s medical clinics, which specialize in gynecology and providing medical and emotional services to women.

Accordingly, starting on September 30 — the day on which the book will be officially launched at the giant Barnes and Noble branch in Union Square — Dunham will hold 12 events in 12 cities throughout the U.S., including Austin, Iowa City, Chicago and Portland. In an event at Vroman’s Bookstore in the Pasadena Presbyterian Church in California, for example, Dunham will host the director and artist Miranda July ("Me and You and Everyone We Know") and stand-up comedian Morgan Murphy for a conversation about feminism, humor and female nudity. Tickets for the launch sold out within minutes after the official announcement appeared on Dunham’s website. The last event in the series will take place at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn on October 21, at a formal evening where Dunham will have a conversation with the writer Zadie Smith, and host Jemima Kirke (Jessa Johansson on "Girls") and Bleachers, her husband’s indie pop band.

In the meantime, American writers such as David Sedaris and Judy Blume have already managed to praise Dunham’s book. Dunham has announced that with her sister’s inspiration, her launch tour will include a series of writing workshops for young women in various American cities. Shortly before the book is officially released, it can be said that even if Dunham does not give her readers anything new from a literary perspective, at least she is redefining the rules of the publishing world, from the advance stage to that of her well-publicized launch.

As she writes in the foreword, her book ought to be judged as an honest effort, limited in scope, by a young woman to translate the circumstances of her life into insights from which other young women can draw inspiration and encouragement. “I’m already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you with this book, but also my future glory in having stopped you from trying an expensive juice cleanse or having the kind of sexual encounter where you keep your sneakers on. No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist or a registered dietician. I am not a married mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in self-actualization, sending hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle."

This book cover image released by Random House shows, "Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned', " by Lena Dunham. The book will be released on Sept. 30, 2014Credit: AP

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