In the new issue of Zoetrope All-Story, Lena Dunham contributes a short essay on her discovery of Alice Munro’s work. Fueled by a lazy night with the recent Munro adaptation Hateship, Loveship on demand, she turned to the collection that includes the original story, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, describing a night spent under the covers with the book, underlining nearly every line.
She loves Munro’s “quiet grace,” the specificity in her writing about small-town life, the “angry bite” to her words. Dunham observes that there’s “a sense that everyone is doing their best and it isn’t good enough, that we are forced to hide behind faces, plain or beautiful, that don’t at all reflect who we are but do determine how the world will engage us.” She admits that she came to Munro “too late,” after the Nobel Prize win and the author’s general acceptance to the canon; despite that, she describes the beginnings of a love affair with Munro’s work, seeing that her techniques are there for the taking, alive in her own art: “I still feel that Alice Munro is mine. I am the perfect audience for her brand of quiet, seething feminism.”
It is a sweet, sharp, too-short essay. It leaves us with the thrilling possibility that maybe Dunham could take on one of Munro’s stories as a film, like Sarah Polley’s terrific, Oscar-nominated Away From Her. But Dunham’s essay on Munro is just one of many examples of Dunham’s love of writing and literature — throughout her quick rise to fame and critical acclaim and controversy, she’s taken opportunity after opportunity to publicly read and discuss books, writing, and authors that have changed her life.
It’s resulted in some of Dunham’s strongest essays: her 2012 New Yorker eulogy for Nora Ephron, “Seeing Nora Everywhere,” was a wonderful tribute to a friend that’s touching because Dunham is so precise about what it was like to be friends with Ephron, the lessons that she left, the witty emails she’d sent. By the end of the essay, the reader knew Ephron, if only for a moment: “She explained that being a working mother will never be balanced, so we just need to get over that and try to do the best we can. She explained that you cannot wait around for someone to give you permission to tell your stories.”
She’s also quick to make book lists, whether it’s for The Ideal Bookshelf project or The New York Times‘ “By the Book” feature. She’s publicized her love for Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? and Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., and both books feel like they seeped into Girls Season 3. (Regarding the latter: Amy Schumer’s character yelling at Adam Driver in the premiere felt screamingly reminiscent of Nathaniel P.)
In a lengthy, special interview with Judy Blume that also served as a limited-edition book for The Believer, Dunham and the YA legend mostly discussed the books that they’ve read and loved, from Summer Sisters to illicit nights sneaking peeks at shockers like Lolita, and hearing these women talk about the books that shaped them gives us a glimpse into the ideas and influences in their creative lives and work.
Dunham doesn’t owe any writer anything, and she doesn’t have to write essays or give interviews about the books that changed her life. She’s generous in that way, and it’s nice to see that action in a time where books and literary culture feel imperiled due to the fact that they’re in transition. Her essays have real grace and power to them, and I’m curious to see if that quality will be in her book, September’s release Not That Kind of Girl, the sort of weird “celebrity” memoir category, flavored with some New York literary credibility, that could make it into something that’s worth reading.