Lena Dunham, In Context
The literary Twittersphere blew up (as it is wont to do) yesterday when Forbes published a piece by Helaine Olen titled “Lena Dunham Doesn’t Write For Money And She Doesn’t Think You Should Either.” The piece skewered Dunham’s intro to the published screenplay of “This Is 40.” This is not the first time Olen has tackled Dunham on Forbes, but it is the least flattering.
The piece describes Dunham’s essay as a work where “…Dunham ponders the ‘many reasons’ people write which include ‘glory’ and the ability to use the keyboard to ‘figure things out. As for filthy lucre? That’s deemed a ‘weird plan.'”
Those are damning soundbites out of context. I got my hands on the three page preface Olen quoted from, and in context those words take on very different meaning.
The first three paragraphs of Dunham’s piece read as follows:
“There are many reasons to write. Some of us write for glory- to spite the people who stuffed us in lockers, to remind the lovers who didn’t love us just what they’re missing out on, to alter history and have future generations sing our names.
Others write for money (probably a weird plan, even when it does work out).
But some of us, as Judd reminded me in a recent e-mail,’write to figure something out.'”
The rest of the piece is an ode to her mentor Judd Apatow, but Olen isn’t interested in Lena Dunham’s essay as a whole, or even her complete sentences. No, what she wants to talk about is Dunham’s choice of the word “weird.”
As Olen puts it “…people do need to pay the rent and it isn’t exactly nice to discover that someone who is earning $3.5 million for their musings is so clueless about the things the rest of the world often needs to get by…”
That’s, of course, not at all what Dunham said. She said it’s “probably a weird plan” to write for money “even when it does work out.” She’s acknowledging the fact that it’s not a guarantee that a career in writing will be a lucrative one, just as she’s acknowledging that yes, thing have worked out for her. She’s not clueless, she’s stating a fact. She’s not being privileged, she’s being honest.
Oh, and hey, did you catch that reference to Dunham’s $3.5 million book deal? Because the resentment regarding that deal feels like it’s written all over this piece in invisible ink. The central argument of Olen’s work purports to be that Dunham is clueless about the ways of the world, but I can’t help but feel that beneath that is anger that Dunham has been handsomely rewarded for her creative endeavors and Olen doesn’t take kindly to being given writing advice by a writer she seems to believe is “clueless.”
Like I said, Olen has been kinder about Dunham’s success in the past. In another piece she stated, “I am thrilled that Lena Dunham, the creator and star of HBO’s Girls, has received a more than $3.5 million advance from Random House for her proposed book of semi-comedic essays Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned. She’s funny, smart, thoughtful and talented. Good on her.”
Wow, things change fast on these here interwebs. Hold onto your hat or you’ll lose it in this maelstrom of 0’s and 1’s.
So why is Dunham in the doghouse with Olen? And why was Twitter so jazzed to jump on the hater bandwagon when most of the Twitter-handle-owners in question had not read Dunham’s essay, but only Olen’s misleading rant against it?
I think there are still a lot of people, whether they are okay admitting to themselves or not, that have a lot of anger toward a young woman with as much agency in the entertainment industry (and now publishing world) as Dunham. I think that leads to articles that misrepresent her work, and a conversation on social media that has more vitriol than actual fact. Because let’s be real, no one gives the Foer boys this much grief for the 7-figure book deals they struck in their twenties. I feel like because of this book deal, the internet is hovering over Dunham, just waiting for her to make a wrong move so that they can take away the credibility an author receives when she makes this kind of flashy splash in the publishing world.
What’s the takeaway? The takeaway is Lena Dunham did not run over your dog with an SUV. She did not kidnap your parents and transport them to a cave in the middle of nowhere to pull out their fingernails. She did not club the baby seal population of Canada and she is not currently aiding extraterrestrial warlords in a plot to enslave the human race. She is a young woman who has garnered success and notoriety because of her mind. That’s allowed. She’s allowed to have opinions on writing, not because she has a six-figure deal, but because she’s a writer and writers are allowed to have opinions about their craft. And if there’s going to be anger, let it be for something she actually said, not butchered and out-of-context quotes. That’s shouldn’t pass for journalism, nor should it pass for viable Twitter dialogue.
Stepping off my soapbox now. Steinkellner out!