I have a love/hate relationship with Lena Dunham.
This, apparently, seems to be the general consensus when it comes to Dunham and my theory is that your feelings about her (if you have any) are based on where you fall on the spectrum of being able to relate to her. For a lot of girls, Dunham grew up in a different world. For me, not so much.
Dunham and I are the exact same age, give or take 30 days. We both have an unhealthy obsession with pop culture, are raging liberals and hypochondriacs, and we fell in love with writing at a young age. We grew up in (her) or adjacent to (me) a world of affluence, where people with graduate degrees from liberal arts colleges and an appreciation for highbrow culture were a dime a dozen. We both lived in New York City in our early twenties, she still does. We have similar stories about shitty guys we've dated and shittier men we've worked with. Most tragically, we both thought people would want to read a book of our self-absorbed essays about all of these topics.
The biggest difference? Well, Dunham actually published hers.
When "Not That Kind Of Girl" finally came out, I ended up going the audiobook route, read by Dunham, which I HIGHLY recommend not doing. Why? Well, if you live in an urban area and have ever begrudginly attended a reading (either to support a friend or because some terrible online date dragged you to it), then you know that writers, especially poets, tend to read their work in this affected robot voice that is insufferable. Dunham, whose voice is already hard to listen to for more than a few minutes at a time, slips into that affectation for most of the audiobook.
As if that isn't enough to deter you, you should know that there's a chapter in which she shares a week from her food diary. This is the kind of thing that if you were reading, you would gloss over in seconds, but with the audiobook, you are forced to listen to her recite every line item for upwards of ten minutes. Trust me, it's even more painful that it sounds.
Anyway, in spite of my public claims that I was only hate-reading it to see how bad it was, secretly, I wanted to love it. I mean, this was the book that I had wanted to write, that I thought the world needed! A real view into a modern twenty-something girl's life! The voice of my generation! Or at least... a voice of a generation... right?
I wanted to love it. I did. Instead, my reactions were as follows...
- Denial. I have long maintained to deriders of Dunham that she is probably nothing like Hannah Horvath, the fictional character she portrays on Girls and whose actions are typically the basis of hatred for Dunham herself. As I listened to the Hannah-like moments and thoughts in the book, I started slipping off of my soapbox. Sure, most of these essays were probably/definitely written when she was younger and more Hannah-like. But some were written more recently and even then she made it so hard to argue for creative license that eventually my denial turned into...
- Anger. While I stand by the fact that Dunham is obviously talented, that is sadly overshadowed by her casting herself as the epitome of every terrible stereotype about Millennials. In addition, I resent the way that this famous person with a podium decided to "out" and/or shame people who had rejected her, wronged her or even just irritated her in her personal life. Everyone knows that's what novels are for! If you're as famous as Dunham, the media can easily find these people and ruin their reputations vs. hiding them in fiction. The only way I can think to describe it is that it has a psuedo-literary revenge porn feel to it. Sometimes these people were her friends and family. I mean, I'm all for transparency and telling your truth, but I feel like Dunham's often comes from a very cheap, immature, slambook-style place. For instance, you do not need to publicly and passive aggressively insult the now-wife (you've never met) of someone who didn't call you back after an awkward sexual encounter. Grow up.
- Bargaining. However, I get that writing is a cathartic exercise for her and part of that catharsis is confessing to the worst part of yourself and seeing who sticks around when the dust settles. Some would say this is brave. And personally, for as much of an asshole as Dunham comes across on paper, I really do think that in reality she is probably a very sweet, bright, hilarious woman. I think that NTKOG was a purging of the ugly side of her twenties and I get that. On the flip side, do I really think this purging needed to be published in order to passively badger a million readers into pardoning her sins? Not so much.
- Depression. This was the book I wanted to write? I am embarrassed for my younger self and the ways in which my own experiences, internal monologue and scribbles have ever even remotely echoed hers. I am depressed that she couldn't prove me wrong by being less of a entitled, seemingly narcissistic bully. She is a voice from our generation and if it's at all representative... well, it's sad. I wanted this book to be more, to be better, to not use Nora Ephron's name in vain. But it isn't.
- Acceptance. For all that it is not, what it is is an extension of what Dunham does best on Girls... which is publicly calling out urban, first world white girls on their bullshit. In NTKOG's case, she is the white girl. And sometimes we need someone to do that so that we avoid the same tone deaf pitfalls that she stumbled into throughout her twenties.
I think Dunham frustrates me because she, or at least the parts of her that she chooses to turn into art, haven't really evolved over the past five years. I mean, that's arguably the goal of oversharing right? To say, "It was real, I was there and it sucked, but I worked hard, now I'm here and this is how I did it."
But Lena never really says that. She says, "I was there and now that I'm here, I want to bitch about this ancient bullshit until the people who tried to stop me or who didn't support me learn their lesson." But people don't learn their lesson like this, and neither does Lena. In the end, nobody looks good, nobody grows.
When, towards the end of the book, she says that she can't wait until she's 80 so she can write a book where she names names, I just felt exhausted, both for her and as a reader. I sure don't want to hold on to negative shit from my 20s until my 80s. For all her self-awareness and willingness to be brave, lines like that are just disappointing.
It's lines that that make you realize she hasn't "learned" much.
2015 '50 Books' Progress: 2/50