$3.5 million? She’s worth it
Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet, Jemima Kirke and Allison Williams of HBO's Girls filming on the Streets of Manhattan on May 25, 2012 in New York City. Photo: Aby Baker/Getty Images
With news that Girls creator Lena Dunham had signed a contract for a book deal with Random House reportedly worth upwards of $3.5 million, the internet got a little snarky. Twitter was rife with nasty comments that she didn't deserve all that money, and Gawker sneered 'Lena Dunham became eligible to vote in 2004, so you should listen to her. Keep your hate pure, kids'. Even Forbes magazine was sceptical about whether or not Dunham would be able to sell off her advance, suggesting that, “there's no question young women see her as someone who speaks to their experiences. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll buy her book.” I think my favourite headline was 'Lena Dunham Goes From Making Edgy, Progressive Television To Writing Tired, Non-Essential Literature.' Nobody has read it yet.
So why all the hate?
Random House tells us that the debut essay collection, tentatively titled Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's Learned, will cover topics like work, friendship, travel, sex, love and mortality. One chapter titled “Body,” reads: “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.” The publisher describes the book as “in the tradition of Helen Gurley Brown, David Sedaris, and Nora Ephron,” offering “frank and funny advice on everything from sex to eating to traveling to work.”
Filmmaker and actress Lena Dunham speaks with moderator Emily Nussbaum at In Coversation: Girl Power for The New Yorker Festival on October 7, 2012 in New York City. Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images for The New Yorker
A book is new territory for 26-year-old Dunham, who made her debut as a writer and director with Sundance award-winning film Tiny Furniture in 2010, which she also starred in. But it was her clever, confronting, and hilarious HBO television series Girls, which got four Emmy Award nominations earlier this year, that made us stand up and pay attention. Her character on the show, Hannah Horvath, would probably be snarky about the size of Dunham's book deal too.
But why all the fuss? Because she's young? Because she's a woman? Would there be the same level of frustration if Miranda Kerr was given a similar sum as an advance? I'm doubtful. Because we expect that kind of financial success from a specific kind of celebrity - the kind that sculpts their body and face as carefully as they do their media profile. But Dunham is different. She flouts conventional beauty standard, rejects notions of conformity – and she's frankly fearless about exposing her “normal” body on screen. I think subconsciously people find this hard to reconcile. Is she talented? Undoubtedly. Is she perfect? She couldn't care less.
In the world of celebrity book deals, the figure is still pretty high. While Tiny Fey's reported advance for Bossypants was a staggering $6 million, Sarah Silverman scored $2.5 million for her memoir, Sarah Palin got $1.25 million for Going Rogue, and Pippa Middleton received around $600k for her forthcoming book. Part of the reason celebrity book deals make people so uncomfortable is that they put a price tag on creative work, declaring that certain writing has a higher dollar value. Why is Dunham's book worth so much? Having worked in publishing, I know that it's not entirely about the quality of the work, but rather how many copies the publisher predicts that they'll sell. First and foremost, and given that the publishing industry doesn't take many risks anymore, this is a business deal. If Random House didn't think they could sell out the $3.5 million dollar advance and make a profit, then they wouldn't have given it to Dunham. Not only that, they wouldn't have fought four other publishers for the rights to her book. The aim here is to make money, not flush it down the toilet.
Dunham's 'no pants look' at an L.A. Culinary event on September 29, 2012 in California. Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic
Dunham has already proven that she's creative and insightful (have you seen Girls? She made that stuff up with her mind!) She majored in creative writing at Oberlin College and has written for several publications including the esteemed New Yorker. So if it's not the quality of the writing perhaps it's the content? There's an old-fashioned school of thinking that young people shouldn't write memoirs, that the sharing of personal experiences should be reserved for the old and wise. If publishers had blindly clung to this idea it saddens me to think of the authors we might not have heard from yet; Sloane Crosley, Marieke Hardy, and Benjamin Law to name a few.
Even at 26, I'm confident al Dunham will have important things to say about contemporary society and the way women are treated. At The New Yorker Festival last week, she said "It completely sickens me what our culture is doing to women. Last week I wore a big top and little shorts and a bunch of stuff came out saying I was without pants. 'The No-Pants Look,' it said. And I didn't go out without pants, I had shorts on… If Olivia Wilde had gone to a party with a big silky top and little shorts she might have been told her outfit was cute… What it was really is: 'Why did you show us your thighs?'"
Yes, Lena yes! I know I'll buy a copy of your book already and I hope that the million other people the publisher is relying on to pick up a copy do the same.