Within one hour of receiving Lena Dunham’s debut book, Not That Kind of Girl, I’d had no fewer than five people come up to me as they saw me reading it on the subway platform, then on the subway, then standing in line waiting for coffee. Never has a book I’ve read received so much attention and garnered so many immediate, passionate responses:
“Is it amazing?”
“I hate that cover.”
“I love that cover.”
“Is it terrible?”
“I love her so much!”
“I can’t even explain why, but I just can’t stand looking at her.”
“Where did you get that? I NEED to get that!”
It’s been exhausting. Who else but Dunham can elicit such a wide range of emotions and so much controversy in Brooklyn today? Bring her name up to a group of 20-somethings and prepare to be swept up in a conversation debating the relative merits of her talent, the advantages her privileged upbringing afforded, if she deserved a $3.7 million book advance, and whether or not she’s that big word-of-the-moment: “relatable.” And while there is little doubt that the intensity of the debate surrounding Dunham is due in no small part to the fact that she’s a woman (see the debate surrounding comedian Aziz Ansari’s recent $3.5 million book advance—or don’t, because there wasn’t one), it’s also very specific to Dunham’s artistic voice, which is smart, funny, frank, eminently engaging, and broad enough that it could, in fact, be the voice of its generation. Or, you know, a voice of a generation.
But, you know, just like you’re all probably already tired of hearing that “voice of a generation” joke, the controversy surrounding Dunham creates another kind of fatigue, the kind where you’re just not sure you want to read another word about her—even if it’s by her. Or at least that’s how I felt when I first got this book. But I dove in like it was my job (it is my job) and then kept diving and diving. The things that you’d expect in a Dunham memoir are all there: laugh out loud punchlines (“Not to sound like a total hippie, but I cured my HPV with acupuncture”), extreme honestly about her body, cringe-worthy anecdotes from past relationships, and lessons she’s learned from being under the public’s watchful eye. But there’s also more—much more. Several of the essays—most notably one about her mother’s artwork and another about Dunham’s rape at the hands of mustachioed college Republican “Barry”—are beautifully written and demonstrate Dunham’s adeptness with handling profoundly emotional, frequently troubling subjects with virtuosic skill and candor. These essays resonate far more than the definitely funny, but ultimately feather-weight lists that are scattered throughout, and I finished the book wanting more—much more—of her longer essays.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some problems with the book. There are things I wished Dunham had explored more, namely, the unique position of privilege from which she comes. (This doesn’t, by the way, just mean money; it also means family stability and love, an artistic background, and being in possession of a fierce, uncompromising intelligence.) She touches on this in a few parts of the book, but backs away quickly, perhaps out of the fear of being unrelatable? Who knows. That, I think, is a shame, because I am not looking to relate to Dunham; I don’t want her voice to justify my world, thereby circumscribing it. Rather I think she has a unique ability to broaden the world with her voice, she just needs to go a little further to do it. If Dunham does this, then I think her writing could make even her harshest critic admit that she is definitely a—if not the—voice of her generation.