Flavorwire Roundtable: Is Lena Dunham a Voice of a Generation in ‘Not That Kind of Girl’?

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We are living through a golden age of the female-comedian memoir. Stoked by Chelsea Handler’s consistently bestselling memoirs about drinking and sex, the genre became a full-on trend with Tina Fey’s Bossypants in 2011. In short order, we had books by Sarah Silverman, Mindy Kaling, Judy Greer, Rachel Dratch, anyone who’s ever been on the Chelsea Lately comedy panel, and an upcoming collection by the forever-likable Amy Poehler. Some have succeeded and some have flopped, but it’s a wave that apparently hasn’t even crested yet, with a new million-dollar book deal announced seemingly every day.

The latest example to achieve a level of hype that rivals Fey’s, riding the complicated line between “celebrity essay collection” and New Yorker-approved “feted literary memoir,” is Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”, the debut book by Girls creator, writer, director, and lead actress Lena Dunham. Notable for garnering a $3.7 million advance and much attendant outrage (although did we hear any kickback when Aziz Ansari got $3.5 million to write about “modern love”?), it’s a beautiful book-as-object, handsomely designed, with charming illustrations by Joana Avillez, filled with essays about the 28-year-old artist’s life so far, with subjects ranging from childhood to boys to work.

Dunham is nothing if not a lightning rod for criticism and praise, with every tweet and Girls storyline wrung for clues as to what it means to be a millennial today. But beyond the hype that signals that everything its author does is Important, is Not That Kind of Girl any good? Is Dunham the next Nora Ephron? And is she the voice of our generation — or a voice of a generation, an appellation that a drug-addled Hannah Horvath uttered in Girls‘ pilot episode and that will now follow Dunham forever? Four Flavorwire staffers — all women, or “girls” if you must — have four different takes below.

Measured Appreciation

Not That Kind of Girl is a book that tries very, very hard to be universal — it’s modeled after Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All, and it shows in the sudden pivots from memoir to advice at the end of some essays. But because Dunham’s trying so hard to talk about Relatable Life Experiences (getting her period, having a little sister, going to summer camp), she seems to shy away from the very non-universal reasons why we want to read this memoir in the first place. There’s very little about Girls, for example, or Tiny Furniture, or what it’s like when the most prestigious network on TV gives you free rein over a show at 25.

Which is a shame, because the best essays in the book deal with Dunham’s very particular background and her preoccupations as a filmmaker. My personal favorite is her discussion of on-screen nudity, which she combines with a discussion of her mother’s nude self-portraits; it’s by far Dunham’s deepest engagement with her parents’ creative output, and it’s a passionate argument for the cringeworthy sex scenes and TMI revelations that characterize so much of her work, including this book. And there’s “Barry,” which explains the background of That Scene with Adam and Natalia from Season 2 — and why it’s important to depict sex that isn’t just bad, but outright uncomfortable.

Unlike a large chunk of my social circle, I genuinely like Lena Dunham, and I enjoy her brand of humor enough to find Not That Kind of Girl a worthwhile read, whatever its subject matter. Yet I couldn’t help but feel like Dunham’s relentless focus on her childhood and college years — the I’ve-been-through-it-and-so-can-you approach to advice memoirs — sacrifices something in the name of relatability. Maybe her time in the spotlight is too recent to write about; she basically says as much when she swears to name names of condescending Hollywood men once they’re all safely dead. But I wanted to read more about those unnamed director douchebags! Certainly more than I wanted to read about how Dunham wasn’t molested, but it would “explain a lot of things” if she were. (There aren’t a lot of tone-deaf Hannah Horvath moments in the book, but boy do the ones that are there stick out.)

— Alison Herman, Editorial Assistant

Indifference

I have complicated feelings about Lena Dunham, in that I don’t have strong feelings about Lena Dunham, which is perhaps unheard of (especially if you are a woman, or are in your 20s, or are a television critic, or live in NYC, and so on). In both Girls and Tiny Furniture, Dunham does not concern herself with a world that includes me. This is fine, because she is under no obligation to include me, but it also means that I don’t ever have to concern myself with her. So even though Not That Kind of Girl does try hard to be universal — and for most of the book, it really is — it’s still clear that I’m not the target demographic (white women who relate to Girls) for it.

Not That Kind of Girl is a book that’s supposed to feel special, I guess, because of the author behind it, but it’s really just more of the same. I’ve read so many memoirs like this (Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, etc.) that it’s impossible for Not That Kind of Girl to stand out. I don’t have to be a huge fan of Dunham to already know most of what she talks about in the book. Even when she’s revealing something brand-new, like specific things she did or or said as a child, it’s still somehow unsurprising. Alison mentioned the two things that stick: Dunham’s college encounter with Barry and how she can’t properly classify whether or not it was consensual, and the chapter where she chronicles the awful things famous men have said to her. Other than that, reading the book was the equivalent of something going in one ear and right out the other.

It’s not that Not That Kind of Girl is bad. It’s just… there. It’s filled with the sort of humor where you think, “I’m supposed to laugh here,” but you don’t actually make a sound. It sometimes reads like above-average blogging, better than your basic personal essay but without any sentences that make me stop and think. It was purely passive reading, plodding along indifferently, knowing that I have to finish it but also knowing I won’t be missing anything if I didn’t. The indifference I have towards the book is the same indifference I have toward Lena Dunham in general: Keep doing whatever you do, and I’ll keep hanging out in the other room.

— Pilot Viruet, Television Editor

Charming Neurosis

Do I have to have capital-f Feelings about Not That Kind of Girl? I will say when it came into the office, I took it home and read it very quickly, partially for work reasons and partially because it was an entertaining essay collection. For what it is — the most “literary-ish” female-celebrity essay collection in recent memory, post-Tina Fey’s funny but slight Bossypants, the Chelsea Handler “I was slutty” empire, and Mindy Kaling’s likable essays that yielded their own card game — it’s good.

Outside of the echo chamber of noise around Girls, I’ve grown to appreciate Dunham’s work — the show can be all over the place (Hannah’s Iowa acceptance came out of left field), but when it hits, it lingers (I still think about Season 2’s “One Man’s Trash”). Dunham is clearly one of the insightful voices of my generation (not the one-and-only, do we even have a the, even though the media treats her as a the), and I’ve appreciated her work more and more as she’s gotten more specific as a writer — the New York Times Magazine piece compared her to Woody Allen, an observation that wasn’t new but remains apt. Our colleague Jason Bailey expanded on Dunham/Allen in this essay.

Dunham’s less of a ha-ha-joke writer; her humor comes more from the absurdity of life, from sly, well-observed scenes. But she appears to share a milieu with Allen, and certainly a variety of New York-relatable neurosis, a familiarity with psychiatrists and the whatever-speak of therapy that people try to sell you so you can deal with being a person. At the end of the day, though, Dunham’s not a nihilist; the secret is that she writes with a lot of love for the world, for herself (which appears to infuriate her sexist, lame critics), and for life, and she’s attuned to the weird little secrets that we all have. She’s interested in what her place in the world is, and is willing to share some of her worst moments with you, the reader. In the right combination, it’s a gift.

Like Girls‘ best moments, Not That Kind of Girl has wonderful high points. Dunham’s essay on why she gets naked in her work is honest and true. She ties in that aspect of her work with early photos by her artist mom, Laurie Simmons, in the ’70s, when she was just a “girl,” and you can see how this family’s habit of looking, really looking in the mirror at themselves influences their artistic ethos. Throughout the book, her portrayal of her father, Carroll Dunham, makes him sound like a really fascinating character and a good father. There’s also another essay about having a girl-crush on a young British playwright (if you sleuth, you’ll figure out it is probably Polly Stenham) and her posh British bohemian life that’s very funny.

“Barry” is a raw essay about sexual assault, and how trauma can exist in a gray area, that’s tough and moving. For younger women, it may be the sort of piece that can open their eyes. “Little Leather Gloves” talks about Dunham’s time right after college working at a high-end children’s clothing boutique in Tribeca and serves as a portrait of the artist taking her first, foal-like steps out into the world. It’s warm and nostalgic.

These essays stuck with me more than the essays regarding Dunham’s childhood (as seen previously in The New Yorker). The low point might be her essay on dieting, which features an endless array of food diaries that grows repetitive. This book strikes a curious balance between performing its candidness and telling universal-ish childhood stories that could just read like awkward family photos, and Dunham’s coy about the really interesting stuff. Growing up as the daughter of New York artists; seeing mumblecore movies and realizing she could make one herself; having your movie premiere and win the big award at SXSW; navigating Hollywood as, what, a size 8/10… all that is elided, and maybe I’m greedy, but I want to know what those experiences were like.

— Elisabeth Donnelly, Nonfiction Editor

Does She Have to Be Relatable?

I’m a 26-year-old professional writer and Brooklyn transplant who is not afraid to admit that she’s purchased infused olive oil from the artisanal shop down the block, yet routinely feels like her personal life is falling apart. I’m supposed to have a concrete opinion on Lena Dunham. But Not That Kind of Girl doesn’t elicit such an obvious response.

I spent much of the book feeling conflicted: to write a book like this is to give power to the young female experience. Broadly, I support that aim. Specifically, I don’t feel that some of what has been written is worth discussing. This is not coming from an anti-feminist place — this is coming from the fact that stories about summer camp and annotated emails to garbage humans are not the best Dunham has to offer. So much of her writing on terrible men makes about as much sense as the pseudo-relationships themselves, so I don’t exactly feel like I “learned” anything. I felt comforted, at times, to see my own mistakes reflected back at me, like when St. Vincent declares plainly on her song “Cheerleader,” “I’ve had good times with some bad guys.” Then again, why does Lena feel like she needs the reader to learn from her experiences instead of just presenting them? Is she justifying them or simply trying to seem wiser than she is? In this way, she’s both insecure and overly confident.

As others have mentioned, Dunham skips over a bit of what makes her story unique in her quest to write something “relatable” (I started to agree with the New Yorker‘s “Scourge of Relatability” essay after reading Not That Kind of Girl). “Sex Scenes, Nude Scenes, and Publicly Sharing Your Body,” “Barry,” and “Girl Crush” are the best essays in the book, because Lena writes from a perspective that is undeniably her own. The “juicy” Hollywood tidbits are kept anonymous, as are the day-to-day realities of running and starring in your own TV show when the whole world knows you’re new to this job. In this sense, she’s the least satisfying sort of oversharer, telling you what she wants but not what she knows you want. There’s a certain power in that, but a book of that leaves a little something to be desired.

All that said, I think Lena Dunham can tell a good story — hell, she can make childhood dysfunction and food diaries decently funny. I enjoyed reading it, but I will not carry most of these stories with me, like I do Nora Ephron’s “universal” essays.

— Jillian Mapes, Music Editor