Will Tina Fey’s Readers Make Lena Dunham’s Book a Hit?

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Last October, 26-year-old actor, writer, and filmmaker, Lena Dunham signed a book deal for the reported sum of $3.7 million. After Dunham met with several publishers, Random House came out on top in a bidding war The New York Times called “one of the most heated auctions of the year,” purchasing the rights to her upcoming debut essay collection, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned. The Times quoted Dunham as saying that she’s “thrilled to be working with… Random House, and to be among their incredible roster of authors. I look forward to digging deep… to produce the most thoughtful and personal book I can.”

Dunham is the latest in a wave of female comedy actors and writers publishing books, a tradition inaugurated by Chelsea Handler in 2005, with My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands, a hilariously frank slew of the author’s sexcapades. But the comic chick lit movement really peaked in April 2011, with Tina Fey’s critically and commercially successful Bossypants. Sarah Silverman, Susie Essman, Mindy Kaling, and Rachel Dratch, among others, have also published books – usually essay collections drawing on the writer’s work, sex, love, and family life, written as pithy memoir.

Dunham’s book is expected to run much in the same vein, as the Times ascertained from a copy of her book proposal that it “will cover topics like work, friendship, travel, sex, love and mortality.” Early last month, Gawker leaked the proposal, before it was removed at the request of Dunham’s lawyer – except for these 12 quotes the author attempted to have removed, to no avail.

According to the Times, Dunham’s proposal reminded publishing executives of Fey’s Bossypants, the lodestar of the comic chick lit genre, which has sold more than a million copies since it was published. And this Huffington Post article, which compares Dunham’s upcoming book to Bossypants and Kaling’s book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), notes that the latter sold between “130,000-150,000 in hardcover and about 15,000 paperbacks” within three weeks of its November 2011 release, but whether Dunham’s book will enjoy the same success as those by Fey or Kaling is another question.

“Publishing is a copycat industry,” Jim Milliot, Co-Editorial Director of Publisher’s Weekly, explained. “Once Handler’s books sold well, publishers thought, ‘Well, let’s find more working comedians!’” It happened again with Bossypants, which was, he said, “the bestselling book” of 2011.

Milliot added that it’s “very attractive to publishers” when writers have TV shows and films, since “publishers look for authors with a platform.” Comedy writers like Fey and Dunham, he said, “have great recognition among readers: that’s the number one reason for them being published.”

Identification is, of course, a crucial element of any reading experience. But readers relate to the authors of such memoirs not only as they know them already from their screen credits, but through the empowering stories they bring to the page as hardworking career women. One reader, a 24-year-old Tina Fey enthusiast and aspiring humor writer, found “reading about [Fey’s] work ethic – her time at Saturday Night Live, and…at Second City – how she scraped by doing all these menial jobs before she was offered the writer’s gig at SNL… really inspiring.”

“There were moments when I connected with Tina,” said another reader, a 29-year-old London-based fundraiser who talks about “Tina” as though she knows her. “Particularly when she discussed her experience of working in the improv group [Second City]. As a woman…who tried to follow her passion…but found few job opportunities in a big city, Tina’s story really resonated with me.”

She contrasted reading Bossypants with Dunham’s movie, Tiny Furniture, in which Dunham’s character returns home from college at a loose end. “A whole generation of people like myself – age 29, completely overqualified, overeducated, underpaid, and underappreciated – are going through something similar,” she said. But she felt that Tiny Furniture “was a missed opportunity to create something that really resonated with our generation,” since “the film… was completely undermined by the lead character’s poor choices and her overwhelming desire to be the object of men’s affection.” One of those “poor choices” is made when Dunham’s character misses a career opportunity to wind up having sex with a guy she likes in, of all places, a pipe on the street. Where Dunham’s character snubs the chance of a career to impress a man in Tiny Furniture, Fey takes charge of her career in Bossypants.

For 23-year-old medical research assistant Cathy Skulnik, these women are positive role models because they’re “funny, confident, and successful women… not afraid of self-deprecating and risky humour.” Skulnik credits “the fact that they write their own material” as “a big step for female comedians,” noting that “for Dunham and Kaling, especially, their looks play a significant role… It’s inspiring for women who do not look like models to be the protagonists of shows they’ve created.”

Reno Botelho, 24, a receptionist from Long Beach, California, similarly values that these women aren’t “the typical Hollywood actress. They came from different backgrounds, went through large portions of awkwardness in life and still managed to become wildly popular,” she said. Ultimately, readers feel that they know these women, because they’re like them. Or else, they want to be.

But will the same readers that loved Fey and Kaling’s books be reading Dunham’s? “Oh so very likely,” said Girls fan Botelho. “I am very intrigued to see what she has to say… I think [Dunham’s is] a very authentic voice for the early to mid 20s,” she added. Despite her reservations about Tiny Furniture, the fundraising reader said she’ll also read Dunham; “I feel she is giving a voice to my generation.” Milliot suspects Dunham will appeal “much more to younger, media-savvy people.”

Yet some made it clear they wouldn’t be buying Dunham’s book. “Nooooo I will not read that book!” Skulnik cried. “I like Lena Dunham’s work, but… her decision to write a book about her life at [her] age is presumptuous and misguided… While Fey had a whole career and personal life to write about, Dunham is just getting started.”

“I don’t think she’s too young,” the hopeful humor writer and Fey fan said. “Fey was young-ish when she was on SNL and she’s one of the sharpest and funniest… most insightful commentators.” This reader’s problem with Dunham is that her “voice is too immature, her perspective is too narrow,” she said, quoting the title of an essay from Dunham’s book: “‘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.’ It’s an experience that’s so exceptional,” she said, adding, “Anyone who writes… in their 20s and is a white female is gonna be compared unfavorably to her.” Surprisingly, she said she’d still buy Dunham’s book – “so I can use it as toilet paper.”

Chances are, many of Fey and Kaling’s readers will pick up Dunham’s book. But whether they laugh or cry over it with friends, find some identification with the author embedded deep within themselves, or prefer to use the paper for toilet tissue is another matter.