Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

If a Girl Writes in Her Diary and No One's There to Read It: on the Leaking of Lena Dunham's Book Proposal.

Lena Dunham's proposal for her book, Not That Kind of Girl: a Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned," was leaked by Gawker last week. It's since been removed.

John Cook's reasons for citing the quotes from the Not That Kind of Girl proposal - quotes which can, at this time, still be read - which originally appeared on Gawker without criticism or analysis:
  • ...a nauseating and cloying posture of precociousness that permeates the entire proposal.
  • ...she has been examining her own thoughts and desires analytically from an absurdly young age.
  • Dunham's self-dramatizing narcissism...[demonstrates] a desire for an attention-grabbing condition [as well as] a fear of developing said condition.
  • ...her obsessive and boundaryless relationship with her mother...
  • oblivious cluelessness about time and its passage.
  • ...a self-awareness on Dunham's part that the subject of her proposal - herself - was raised in exquisite privilege.
  • Dunham was so desperate to have the minutiae of her life - and her dietary choices - validated by cultural arbiters that she participated in coverage of a dinner party by the New York Times....[And] she periodically deploys such validation as suits her needs.
  • Come on. Poetry camp?
  • way of a blithe and effortless reference to her mother's domestic service-provider...Dunham [demonstrates that she] exists in a navel-gazing bubble of privilege where one's mother simply has a nutritionist.
  • The quoted sentence is preposterously hackneyed and demonstrates an "I workshopped it at Oberlin" level of quality...
  • Dunham and her friends cruelly mocked a young girl struggling with her weight.
  • Dunham is incapable of conceiving a rationale for writing that doesn't serve the goal of drawing attention to herself.
The remark about the "nauseating and cloying posture of precociousness that permeates the entire proposal" is repeated again and again.

Incapable of conceiving a rationale for writing that doesn't serve the goal of drawing attention to herself.

Since Dunham's work is such occasion for generative discussion, it's disappointing to see examination of that work become occasion for complaining. One of my favorite pieces of Girls criticism is from Gawker as well, the April article "Hipster Racism Runoff and the Search for the Black Costanza," in which Cord Jefferson concludes: "When we look at Lena Dunham and Jerry Seinfeld, we see people with whom we have a lot in common. When they look at us, they see strangers."

Feminist Film had words about this in October. Although I found the reaction to Girls' premiere disproportionate and said so, after the incidents that dotted the airing of the first season, I agree massively with FF that apologizing for and defending Dunham et al from charges of racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, privilege, etc, is egregious. If the personnel involved can make Girls, which is worth examination, they can face those criticisms - and that is where the broken thinking on their part was exposed, in reaction to criticism. As much as I think Dunham is genuinely skilled and I am excited to see how her work grows as this informs her, it isn't possible to consider without also thinking of the people who, by virtue of their not being white, cisgendered, able, et al, don't have a shot this day - not even of creating their own HBO show! They are not able to be judged so delicately, to have their work considered something that could be far-reaching and relateable and inclusive just because it begins with white, cisgendered, able people but could widen its scope. The notion of a scope having to be widened to accommodate people who are people as much as anybody is embarrassing.

But Cook's annotations are not Feminist Film's or Jefferson's criticisms. They serve only to reinforce that Cook does not like Dunham's subject: herself. Self-involvement is a part of Dunham's routine. Self-involvement is the kind of quality that is so interior, people who have problems with self-involved people seem offended by the self-involved party's inability to be perceptive about the other. This has been my experience. If a person demonstrates a self-involved nature, and I find that might compromise my ability to deal with that person, deal-breaker. But Dunham is not my friend. Her creative persona, Hannah Horvath, et al, are devised for the sake of entertainment. Toxic self-involvement is a facet of the entitled, educated white person for whom "having it all" is a genuine cause for crisis - the kind of person Dunham explores in her work. The extent to which she can be objective about it, enjoying the astonishingly exceptional life that she does, is, frankly, her problem and no one else's, as all it affects is her ability to do her work. The work either entertains, informs, challenges, or critically examines, or it fails. If a twenty-year-old girl looks at Dunham and says, I don't want people to think I am that self-involved, maybe that girl will take a step back and recognize that she and Dunham are different people and that one girl is not all girls. The idea that something one girl does is interpreted as "something that girls do" - and likewise, "twenty-year-old" can be substituted for "girl" - is repulsive. Maybe that will inspire that person to tell their own story.

These remarks are not judgment - they are the textual equivalent of crossing one's arms and pouting. Since they were posted in the aftermath of the proposal's removal, they were all the more disappointing since, having read the proposal, I was ready to see something really engage with the text.

If Lena Dunham did not want people to laugh at the self-involvement affected by her creative persona, she would not lay it on so thick, and it has never been so thick as in this book. In Girls, self-involvement is a substantial facet of each character and is cultivated to serve a different purpose for each of them. Marnie's manifests in her martyr complex, Jessa's as a protective measure against the tendency of others to project onto her. Shoshanna is self-involved because she's overwhelmed and embarrassed by her own complexity, scrutinizing her every action in order to cultivate the kind of behavior she thinks - warped as she is - is desired and acceptable. Hannah is beholden to a self-involved nature. She is fascinated by the behavior of others but her perception is not a precision instrument. She has not lived a lot, but that fascination is not the kind of thing one keeps a lid on until something is worth it. Fascination gets spent wherever it can focus. In the case of each of these characters, this alone provides a springboard from which they are triggered, if the narrative is so inclined, to change with ungraceful force and fervor. It is this potential that makes Girls worth my attention.

That said, what of Not That Kind of Girl can be gleaned from this proposal reads like Hannah's inner monologue. Without the context - Girls illustrates the function self-involvement serves socially - the reader has only to react against the text. If the reader doesn't find short-sightedness a funny quality, if it defines the place where "art" turns into a bid to get attention, then this book is not for that reader.

Doing it for attention - I would like to surgically extract that phrase from the vernacular. It implies something done solely for the benefit of others, solely to gain an audience that will thereafter be disappointed because the attention-getter has nothing, really, worth looking at. If an artist gets by without an audience, that's that artist's prerogative. But to say that an artist is not entitled to generate interest, to generate an audience, smacks of envy. Envy annihilates an argument. It reduces an argument to a complaint, to I have been inconvenienced.

The section of the book I am most looking forward to reading is the one about her experience in therapy. It does not appear in the proposal. A considerable amount of the proposal is previously published material.

The most significant thing I took away from the proposal was the total astonishment that Cook picked out what he picked out, zeroing-in on what he asserted signified her relentless self-involvement. If I was in attack-mode, there are many, many, many other parts of the text I would have emphasized.

From what I am able to gather from the samples included in the proposal - which, again, includes a great deal of previously published material - this is a take-down of the advice genre, a disassembling from the marrow, as delivered by someone who cannot guide herself out of a self-imploding sentence, let alone readers in matters personal or professional. That is, I realized - after I took a step back - what I was expecting. Dunham has stated this is not a serious advice book. In the way of a disclaimer, the subtitle bears those quotation marks around the word learned. She does not believe a person of her age has anything to legitimately impart in the way of advice and has cited the absurdity of books like He's Just Not That Into You and people who believe themselves to be experts on matters such as dating.

I am bracing myself for all the people who will read this book very literally. It could undergo radical changes as it forms. Since the pieces included in the proposal have appeared elsewhere as stand-alone articles, those approaching the work with preconceived notions might take their appearance to signify the book was not written in jest.

I can't wait to see what happens.

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