Lena Dunham got paid $3.7 million for the book proposal of her autobiography, an amount the Coquette accurately described as “Hillary Clinton money.” Dunham also wrote an essay for the new Judd Apatow movie “This Is 40” in which she claimed that writing for money is weird, and then every writer on the Internet had a coronary.
Which is to be expected. Dunham’s an easy target; among other seemingly lucky breaks, she wrote and stars in an HBO series that people refer to as the Hipster Sex and the City as well as an extremely boring but apparently acclaimed indie film called “Tiny Furniture.” Basically, she’s successful, and there’s no better way to garner yourself some criticism, especially from people who are not.
And if you only learned about her book deal and “This Is 40” essay from, say, Celebitchy (linked by DListed, so obvs I read that first), then yes, you’d be one of Lena Dunham’s critics, as well. Celebitchy’s article focused on Dunham’s privileged background and seemingly snotty attitude towards those who would sully an honorable craft by taking money for it, the combination of the two implying that Dunham has never really needed money, so she can’t understand the numerous ways in which a person can and would be driven to write to pay the bills. According to Celebitchy, she is “turning her nose up to writers who dare to get paid for their services.”
Celebitchy also excerpted an oddly-positioned piece from Forbes, titled “Lena Dunham Doesn’t Write For Money” and subtitled, or at least it would seem so until you follow the link to Forbes.com, “And Doesn’t Think You Should, Either.” Somehow, the Forbes piece is even less cohesive than the Celebitchy piece, but both appear to assert that Lena Dunham is getting paid but doesn’t understand why anyone else would want to, and that’s why she’s a terrible person.
Lastly, there’s Gawker, which hates everything (including itself, so it’s kind of like Hannah Horvath?), and was ordered by Dunham’s lawyer to remove a snarky post about the proposal. They responded thusly. At least Gawker focuses more on the book’s content than Dunham’s contextual jihad about getting paid to write and their criticism of it sounds a lot like what went on in my head as I read it. I mean, claiming to have had two existential crises before age 20? Who has that kind of time? Going to Japan and spelling “Roppongi” wrong? Twice? Being a chubby college girl with a “massive Cosby sweater” in 2005? What kind of wealthy hipster idiot wrote this? But of course, Gawker’s in the business of being cunty, and the more I remember that my brain is like them, the more I tell myself to knock it off.*
So. If you only read the Celebitchy, Forbes, and Gawker articles, then it would be pretty easy to jump on the “I Hate Lena Dunham” bandwagon.
Or you could assume that what she wrote may have been taken out of context. Even though “This Is 40” hasn’t yet been released so I can’t transcribe her contribution to it, I did locate a slightly longer version of her blurb, in which she says that is it “weird that people write for money and not to figure things out,” which reads to me like a thought about why a person begins writing in the first place (like in a diary, blog, or whatever humiliating Buffy fan fiction you wrote when you were 15 that you hope to god no one ever sees). Perhaps Dunham is speculating on this background and what a younger, non-getting-paid writer self would think after getting her first check. Dunham also lists reasons such as “glory” for writing, which if you know any writers is a big fat duh because that’s what we all want, and why all of the Internet writers who have been bitching about Dunham lately are bitching because “IT’S NOT FAIR.”
I get that, I really do. I live getting that. It seems hugely unfair to be writing as much as you can as often as you can for as many outlets as you can and still not receive a dime, and there’s a special kind of agony involved in mulling over whether or not you should submit your piece to a certain publisher’s anthology when a) you know you’re not getting paid but b) they are, possibly in perpetuity which sucks even though c) your name could be seen by people.
It’s really unfair that it’s nearly impossible to be published otherwise these days, and when someone else who might not be as good as you is getting paid $3.7 million to write the same kind of I Was Told There’d Be Cake/Why I’m Like This/Hypocrite in a Poufy White Dress/I Don’t Care About Your Band/And the Heart Says Whatever/Other Books Full of Subtitles and Self-Deprecating Rich Girl Stuff essays as the rest of the women in New York who are at least kind of Jewish, something in your black writerly heart breaks. And you go back to your job writing commercials (my friend), press releases (my other friend) or beer websites (me, once upon a time) — you know, those writing jobs that do make you money — and continue to grumble about how it’s never your turn.
Of course, you could assume that Dunham knows this, too. She might not have come from the kind of background that requires a person to scrape for every bit of free byline and maybe get lucky writing in corporatese, but she doesn’t seem clueless enough to imply that writing is too noble to do for pay. She writes her own admittedly biographical character who is a writer as a spoiled little asshole for one, and for two, I’m sure she’s heard of the state of publishing today (in a saturated market, no less) and is aware of how absurd it seems to get that kind of cash for anything.
You could assume that Dunham’s background isn’t her fault, either, that she didn’t choose wealthy parents like I didn’t choose poor parents, and that if you or I were offered that kind of safety net, we’d have taken it ages ago because while the poverty diet yields results, I’d much rather just not worry about rent most of the time. I also know that it’s silly to force an upper middle class white girl to put in her time doing manual labor before having the gall to get paid to write stuff, and that anyone who disagrees hasn’t listened to enough Springsteen to know about real fucking life yet.
So do I think it’s weird that some people write for money? Yeah, of course. It’s weird like getting paid to take a shit is weird, because for some of us, we have no choice either way. I also think it’s weird that anyone gets paid a living wage to write in this economy, and I find it ultra-weird that anyone on earth could get $3.7 million to write about going to a liberal arts college and having bad sex. But I don’t think that any of this weirdness is Lena Dunham’s fault.
And ultimately, I’m most proud of my former diary-writing, fan fiction-hiding, future blogging, hissingly jealous writer self for realizing this.
*Because, let’s be honest, it’s not a terrible book (proposal). It’s not worth $3.7 million to publish, but I’ve read worse and would probably buy it for $9.99 if I had to be on an airplane.