Blog in Progress: An Open Letter to Lena Dunham, From the Literary World
Dear Lena Dunham,
This is the literary world calling. We have issues with you. And we’re not shy about posting them online.
Your memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, was published this week. You received a $3.7 million dollar advance. Although we haven’t read your book yet, we feel pretty certain that it wasn’t worth $3.7 million. Yes, we are aware that authors like John Grisham and James Patterson routinely get multi-million dollar book deals, and yes, some of us – the ones who fancy ourselves as having the highest standards – privately whisper that we don’t think their writing is sentence-level good. But we don’t grouse about them online, because Grisham and Patterson have a certain gravitas. They are, for starters, men – older men, established men. Men with families. Also, James Patterson gave money to indie booksellers, and we love him for that. Do you give money to indie booksellers, Lena Dunham? What, in fact, are you, at 28 and single, going to spend your $3.7 million advance on? Do you really need to buy more craft cocktails in Brooklyn?
Yes, let’s talk about your age. You were born in 1986. Some of us were young adults in 1986, already writing, in some cases enrolled in MFA programs. Others were in college. At least one of us spent much of that year following R.E.M. around the country on the Life’s Rich Pageant tour and scribbling short stories along the way. The point is, many of us have been at this since the year you were born, and most of us have not had a seven-figure book deal. Some of us are in a mid-list slump; others can’t even get that first book published. Or written. Or find an agent for it. We know our work is better than yours – we know this viscerally, psychically, without having read your book – and therefore, we don’t understand why you should be so successful, when we are not.
The closer we are to your age, the more likely we are to resent your success. Because the truth is, we could have done everything you’ve done. We have the neuroses; we have the body image issues; we had, continue to have, the bad sex. Perhaps what we didn’t have were artist parents to make us feel it was possible to do what you’ve done. Perhaps we simply didn’t have the work ethic that has allowed you to write and direct a film, four seasons of a television show, and craft a memoir, all while still in our twenties. The thing is, your work is not perfect, none of it – the film has flaws, the tv show has never been quite as good as that groundbreaking first season, and of course, there’s the new book, which we are certain we would find to be deeply flawed, if we read it. Our work is not perfect either – our writing workshops and slews of rejections have told us this – but we smugly feel pretty certain it’s better than yours. That’s why ours isn’t selling. We’re so misunderstood.
If we’re older, we don’t get why you have so many tattoos – no one our age has that many tattoos! – but other than that, you remind us of us when we were young, especially if we’re female. In some ways, we love this; in other ways, we wonder why we didn’t do what you’re doing, back when we were in our twenties. Because we could have. (See above.)
Many of us are put off by your self-promotion, but we are even more unsettled when you take away a reason for us to hate you. To wit: we recently heard that you’d selected performers to open for you on your book tour dates, and were not going to pay them. We posted about this with glee, lighting up social media as we reveled in your Marie Antoinette-ish one-percent-ness. Never mind that many of us had never posted with outrage at income inequalities before; never mind that we got more worked up about what we called your exploitation of fellow artists than we have about the Ferguson shooting, or climate change, or the deterioration of the American public school system. And then … you took it all away from us by tweeting that we were right, and that you would compensate your opening acts.
An Oberlin girl like you should understand subtext. We are disappointed in you, Lena Dunham, for taking us seriously. Most of us didn’t really care whether your opening acts got paid; after all, we read our work for free all the time – in coffee shops and bars, at literary series, in bookstores. But it gave us another reason to resent you, and now, you’ve denied us that small pleasure.
We acknowledge that there are writers with huge book deals – in some cases, multi-book deals – who are not even actually writing the things, yet taking home millions for lending their names. There are the Kardashians, who’ve published everything from novels to a forthcoming book of selfies; Jersey Shore reality star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi; and Lauren Conrad, among others. In 2011, Rutgers University even paid Polizzi a higher speaking fee than Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison, but we didn’t get as upset about any of that as we get about you, Lena Dunham. Do you know why that is? Do you know why many of us hate you more than we hate Kim Kardashian – who appears to have no actual talent other than marketing herself, and who has made so much on the books she’s “written” that your advance actually looks modest in comparison?
It’s because many of us – possibly most of us – think you have actual talent. We can’t bear to admit it, but we think it. Your memoir will most likely be on the thin side because, let’s face it, you’re pretty young to write a memoir – you weren’t, say, convicted of murder and held in an Italian prison for four years like Amanda Knox, who received a reported $4 million for her story – but we fear your book may actually have some good moments. It may, in fact, have some really good moments. Perhaps even entire good sections. You know, like David Sedaris. We all adore him, despite the fact that he, like you, mines the same neuroses repeatedly.
But then, he never got a $3.7 million advance, as far as we know.
So go ahead and have your book tour, Lena Dunham. Spend your money on artisanal porridge, if you wish. But don’t expect us, the literary world, to support you. There’s a $5,000 grant out there that we all need to gnaw each other’s heads off to get.
And we deserve it.
*Photo taken by David Shankbone. Used in compliance with Creative Commons License.
Lisa Borders’ second novel, The Fifty-First State, was published by Engine Books in 2013. Her first novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, was chosen by Pat Conroy as the winner of River City Publishing’s Fred Bonnie Award and received fiction honors in the 2003 Massachusetts Book Awards. Lisa has published humor in McSweeney’s, essays in The Rumpus and several anthologies, and short stories in Washington Square, Black Warrior Review, Painted Bride Quarterly and other journals. She has taught creative writing since 1997, shifting her focus to the novel when she developed GrubStreet’s Novel in Progress courses in 2005. She also co-developed and co-taught GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator from 2011 – 2013, and developed and led the Novel Generator from 2014-2017. She now teaches in the University of Arkansas at Monticello’s online MFA program. For more information on Lisa and her work, visit lisaborders.com.See other articles by Lisa Borders