The Soapbox: The Conversation I Wish We Were Having Instead About Lena Dunham’s $3.5 Million Book Deal
“Girls” star Lena Dunham evokes a passionate response from bloggers and journalists, especially in women’s media. So I’m a bit nervous about admitting that my thoughts on Dunham’s oeuvre is neutral, even dispassionate. She’s overexposed for a small and fairly meh body of work: “Tiny Furniture” wasn’t that great and I got bored with “Girls” about three episodes in and stopped watching. Her role in the zeitgeist doesn’t interest me much, either. I’m sick of talking about how she takes her clothes off in her work. I’m sick of talking about whether she is racist or just dopey. I’m sick of talking about whether she’s the voice of a generation, or a voice of a generation. It’s not jealousy or hatred that I feel, just a profound feeling of I’m over it. IMHO, Lena Dunham gets a lot of attention for all the attention she is getting. But still, she is everywhere.
Currently there is a huge flurry of attention over Dunham’s $3.5 million book deal. She’s sold a book of humorous essays, tentatively titled Not That Kind Of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned, to Random House, which called the book “in the tradition of Helen Gurley Brown, David Sedaris and Nora Ephron.” It’ll be filled with advice on everything from sex to love to friendship to work. A bunch of women in The Frisky’s office admit they’ll probably buy it.
There are separate critiques to be made about a mainstream publishing industry that hands multi-million dollar contracts to celebrities when more polished but less well-known writers are struggling for book deals. I can understand any resentment or jealousy that some people may feel (although I’ll quickly point out that Denise Richards got a damn book deal last year, too). Lena Dunham is, predictably, capitalizing on her current uber-fame and riding the wave of funny books of essays from women being extremely popular right now: Tina Fey did one, Mindy Kaling did one, Chelsea Handler did like 36, and Samantha Bee even did one. (In fact, Bee admitted to me in a Q&A that she got her book of essays published because Handler’s books were so popular.)
However, because this is Lena Dunham we’re talking about, the controversy is somewhat more personal. Cue headlines about whether she “deserves” all that dough and the Internet screaming: $3.5 million dollars! But she’s 26 years old! And Tina Fey’s book deal was $5 million! TINA FUCKING FEY!
For what it’s worth, I like Alyssa Rosenberg’s take at Slate’s XX Factor blog and how she defends Dunham’s book deal bonanza:
Among the ideas in [the book proposal] are a chapter devoted to ‘an account of some radically and hilariously inappropriate ways I have been treated at work/by professionals because of my age and gender.’ And another promises to advise readers on how to wear ‘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. These are the kinds of subjects for which there’s enormous demand but not much supply. … Twenty-something women have a buffet of love, sex, and shopping advice at our disposal, but not often, or ever, with the humor and intelligence that Dunham can bring to any of those subjects.
She makes a good point that the more diversity in women’s voices we hear, the better. Lena Dunham may be privileged and white, but she’s also very young and not shaped like a beanpole. As a woman who is also a writer and also hopes to get a book deal some day, too, I have to say good for her/all-of-ladyhood for it being so lucrative. I also understand that she writes and stars in her own show and to an ever-hungry media, that’s a story. And of course when someone is “new” on the scene it is going to attract some attention (remember when we were having these conversations about Whitney Cummings last year?).
All that being said, the intensity of the scrutiny feels misplaced. I’m less interested in whether Lena Dunham “deserves” her success than in why other people are succeeding in Hollywood under more ignoble circumstances. Why does wife abuser and locker-of-escorts-in-closets Charlie Sheen get his own show on FX, probably for a bundle of money? What about all the beneficiaries of nepotism, from Jenna Bush Hager on “The Today Show” to Luke Russert at NBC News? And while we’re at it, someone please explain to me Olivia Palermo’s entire existence. There are plenty of ding dong chuckleheads whom we could be questioning whether they deserve the big paydays that they do. I realize those all require entirely separate conversations about domestic abuse/drug abuse, the pros and cons of nepotism, and reality television. Yet having those conversations in the context of fame and “who deserves what” is a much more worthy pursuit to me than calculating the worthiness of Lena Dunham. She comes from a privileged background and had connections, to be sure, but as far as I can tell, she writes all her own material, worked her ass off for her accomplishments, and has never locked anyone in a fucking closet. Her work may not be my personal cup of tea, but her own blood, sweat and tears have gotten her there and people do respond to it.
So, I’m sorry if I feel less than appropriately enthusiastic/enraged about “Girls” or “Tiny Furniture,” her essays in The New Yorker, or this new book deal. I’m just busy scratching my head as to why she’s being dissected under a microscope — and wondering whether it will ever stop — while other people with ridiculous paydays and dubious claims to fame skate on by. Does she deserve $3.5 million for a book? Who knows. But she doesn’t deserve so much doubt.