Lena Dunham Girls: The Princess of HBO Becomes a Memoir Queen

The literary world is still reeling from last week’s announcement of Lena Dunham’s $3.5 million book deal with Random House. The proposed book is a bundle of personal essays, with compellingly hilarious titles like “Red lipstick with a sunburn: How to dress for a business meeting and other hard-earned fashion lessons from the size 10 who went to the Met Ball.” 

The $3.5 million sum was greeted with the same mix of elation, rage, fervor, jealousy, and indifference that greeted Dunham's HBO show Girls. But little about Dunham’s announcement is surprising. Her show’s protagonist, Hannah, is an aspiring memoirist, which rings with irony since not much has really happened to her yet. Dunham’s first feature-length film is entitled Creative Nonfiction after that strange hybrid genre that has been a staple for artists for centuries, but has recently become the literary genre à la mode. It’s obvious that this medium has held allure for Dunham for some time. 

The book of essays, tentatively titled Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned, falls into a fairly well-established group of funny but also sincere memoirs written by female comics in the last couple of years. Tina Fey’s Bossypants topped the best-seller lists for weeks, and Rachel Dratch’s Girl Walks Into a Bar also received cult and critical success. Sloane Crosley shook up much of the literary establishment in 2008 with her phenomenal and self-effacing I Was Told There’d Be Cake. 

Adding to the list —and perhaps jumping the gun a bit —Random House cooed about Dunham's forthcoming book, describing it as “in the tradition of Helen Gurley Brown, David Sedaris, and Nora Ephron,” offering “frank and funny advice on everything from sex to eating to traveling to work.”

So why all the fuss? These are lofty precedents indeed, but they don’t seem entirely out of Dunham’s reach. For a 26-year-old, Dunham has already amassed an impressive portfolio large enough to have its own identity that can be imported across mediums. But what seems to enrage people most about Dunham is exactly that: her purported declaration that she is “the voice of a generation.” In actuality, she has never used that phrase to describe herself and, as she was quick to remind her audience at the recent New Yorker festival, this was a phrase her character Hannah used to self-describe while on drugs.

Whether or not someone is the voice of a generation seems like a fairly asinine debate. Every generation, particularly the millennial generation who grew up in a globalized world, is too diverse and multifaceted to be represented by a singular voice. Perhaps a chorus would be more apt. To expect Dunham to render the lives of  an entire generation of people is to set her up for failure.

However, if there’s one thing that Dunham has tapped into which I think resonates and reflects our generation it is that she portrays the brutal and embarrassing and often boring parts of being young, without fear of making her audience uncomfortable. Many of the scenes from her work are indeed cringe-worthy, and I know plenty of people who can’t stomach an episode of Girls. But so many of them are also hilarious, deeply affecting, and form that elusive connection between audience and art because of how brutally exposing they are. 

Much of the criticism flung at Dunham for her portrayal of twenty-somethings was that she looked at their world through a prism of her privilege. These criticisms were lodged with varying degrees of validity and tact. It was indeed an enormous deletion to depict four white girls, something that Dunham claims will be addressed in the second season. As far as her economic privilege goes, much of the scenes concerning Hannah’s “money troubles” were laced with some serious irony that seemed to escape some critics. 

You won’t hear me defending the exclusion, intentional or not, of minorities in a city that is majority minority. However, all (great) artists use the specificity of their own experience in order to access the universal experiences of their audience, and I think that’s exactly what Dunham has done with Girls. This is not a documentary on the state of young women in America living at the dawn of the new millennium; rather, it’s an artistic representation of one young woman’s experiences. Perhaps a more apt titled would be Some Girls, but that doesn’t have the same pithy ring to it. 

I’m excited to read Dunham’s collection of essays because her work so far has been shaped by her highly self-aware, neurotic, confident, confessionary, and often brilliant ideas. In contrast to the sweeping, universal title of Girls, this collection of essays has a rather modest and self-conscious subtitle: “A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned.” Not what she knows, but what she’s learned. And yet, love her or hate her, Dunham has already taught us so much.