Daphne Merkin on Lena Dunham, Book Criticism, and Self-Examination

In a Q&A the legendary essayist and critic Daphne Merkin riffs on everything from Lena Dunham’s less interesting “flawed” self, her favorite writers, and how to write about sex.

Casey Curry/Invision/AP

The Fame Lunches, Daphne Merkin’s latest essay collection, roams widely over the cultural landscape of the past 35 years, to plumb the depths of collective obsessions, public personas and the larger implications of private wounds. Both as a trenchant critic and personal essayist, her work has been marked by its relentless quest to excavate meaning—be it from lip gloss, girdles or W. G. Sebald—a insider/outsider stance and an approach that comfortably mixes Wittgenstein with Groucho Marx. Merkin, 60, began her career reviewing books and films for grand dames such as Commentary and The New Republic, and even her most intimate disclosures can come wrapped in allusions and erudition that speaks to the consolations of tradition. In conversation, her ideas emerge at a roiling boil that often takes on a momentum of its own. “I’m interrupting myself and not finishing one thing,” she admitted at one point. And then raced ahead.

In the edited interview below, Merkin talks about the cartography of selfness, what’s right with England, and Lena Dunham’s missing Sturm und Drang.

You recently wrote a New York Times piece about how you were at last through trying to entertain your therapist. You write a lot about celebrities and with a lot of empathy. Does any of that come from being attuned to the pressure of that need to entertain?

That’s a very good point. In the piece about making the therapist laugh, I say that that I tried to be entertaining because I’m one of six and there wasn’t a ton of attention to go around, on top of which my parents weren’t the kind of to pay attention anyway. So I always felt: was anyone listening? If you don’t think you’re going to be heard, then you hone your articulation to a more seductive note. It’s funny, though, because I don’t ever think of myself as writing so much about celebrities. Per word, it’s not one of the major thrusts of my writing. But I think you’re right, I do see the pressure behind performing. Also, I tend to be drawn to damage as a subject. What happens with that piece of it?

I was on Charlie Rose recently, and in discussing Marilyn Monroe he asked, what do you think was her great appeal? I said that mixture of glamour and vulnerability is potent, especially if you can sense the vulnerability. There are glamorous men and women and you can’t tell where the glitches are. To go—not from the sacred to the profane, but from the interesting to the less interesting—I’ve written about Kim Kardashian twice. I did a piece for Elle about the effort to remake her into an elegant presence fashion-wise. Which isn’t so easy to do. My point being that there aren’t glitches in Kim Kardashian; in a way, what you see is what you get. At least to me. Maybe there is someone else who has found great depths in her. But someone like Monroe, you sense depth. And to me that’s always interesting.

On the other end of the spectrum, there lies an artist like Lena Dunham, who engages in a flaunting of the flawed self.

She’s gifted at marketing the flawed self, which isn’t really a flawed self. With her, the space between her character and her is maybe harder to gauge, except that she’s much surer of herself than her character is. I haven’t watched her of late, and I have to admit I’m not drawn that much to her—if anything, to me, she seems elaborately self-accepting. She’s like the apotheosis of a certain kind of person who’s been given affirmation since day two. “Oh you crawled, oh my god that’s remarkable. And now you’ve stood up.” One never feels with Lena Dunham, which often goes with a genuine sense of flawedness, self-hatred. True? There’s none of that. Or self-discomfort. She seems totally comfortable with her “flawed” self. And I think that’s the new flawed self. Without the Sturm und Drang. Which to me, to be honest, is less interesting. At the risk of sounding old fashioned, I don’t find this sort of flawed-Lite that interesting.

This reminds me of a quote of yours from an interview about ten years ago, where you said that writing personal essays requires “a degree of self-awareness. Enormous self-acceptance, to my mind, doesn’t make for the most penetrating…If you happily write this stuff and accept yourself, that kind of way of looking at it is alien to me.” You go on to say, “I have very strong feelings about self-revelation. It is an art…When I write personally, I truly try and think: ‘If I were reading about me, would I want to know this much? Have I gone on too much here?’” What struck me is that question of ‘have I gone on too much here,’ which is not so much a part of the contemporary culture of compulsive self-exposure.

How has your sense of the art of self-exposure evolved since then?

I’m listening to this quote with slight horror thinking I haven’t changed at all. I’ve been working on a memoir for years. It’s a memoir about living with clinical depression called Melancholy Baby. The besetting problem I have with it to this day, is do people want to know this? Is this adding to the story? Is this too much of me? I think a Lena Dunham does not think, “is this too much of me?” I don’t think she thinks there is a too-muchness of her. I say all this having at best glanced at her book. You know it’s interesting, you said her “flawed self”—what I think she does do is probably make women who are genuinely much more self-doubting think, “it’s okay.” So there’s a certain silent exchange with the viewer. I think some of the women watching her don’t feel attention-worthy, and they get the sense that “oh, I could do this too.” The truth is, they couldn’t do it too.

There is an inherent question of class in regards to Dunham’s success. You’ve written a lot about the psychological impact of money—why do you think class is something we Americans have such a hard time talking about?

I was thinking about this whole class issue versus the idea of money, how they’re not one and the same thing. You don’t equalize everything by saying, “you too can come into this sandbox.” In a way, I think it’s part of the American simplification impulse. We kind of reduce things to the lowest common denominator, in some ways for good and in some ways not for good. And class is a somewhat more nuanced configuration.

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In reading your collection, it occurred to me that while your subject is often overtly yourself, in a general way, your theme is the quest to know a self. I think of all the myriad ways in which you meditate on where you fit into some taxonomy, and also, the way you continually return to the allure of biographies and other means for trying to know another person.

I believe curiosity is probably what has kept me alive. How do you know who you are and then how much can you ever know other people? In many ways, many of us remain unknown to ourselves. That you know yourself, that’s the given, but it’s not so easy to know yourself. If you believe, which I do, that unconscious life governs a lot of us, then I think figuring out what’s in your head and what’s in someone else’s is an enormous adventure. I had a shrink who said to me “everything is transference,” transference being one of these things that I never quite bought in to. But in a way it’s truth. In the end, mental life is what we live by. When you meet someone they’re not just themselves, they’re people that person reminds you of. They set off a response in you that isn’t only about them. That whole, cartography let’s call it, of selfness fascinates me.

You had a great line in your piece on Geoffrey Beene about the “genre” of evening wear. How did your start as a book reviewer inform the personal essayist you became?

I came [to personal essays] through the route of, if you want to call it intellection or a kind of interpretive [genre]. The impulse to interpret seems to me what makes personal essay writing compelling. The whys the wherefores, I think a lot of that is somehow a link from decoding texts, as they say in graduate school. That’s probably what still excites me most on the page, hearing someone think. Reporting is fine and well for reporting. There are events that require primarily reporting, but in a personal essay I want to hear someone think, not simply describe or report. I think there’s almost an overvaluation of reporting. It’s almost like a fear of thinking or a limitation—the audience won’t take it in. In that way, whatever’s wrong with England, I think they do more thinking in their publications. Even something like the Times Literary Supplement, there’s often a lot of packed reflection. I’m almost embarrassed to say this: if I could really have published the book I’d wanted it would have been all books pieces. I still love writing about books. I study my issues of Bookforum. It’s valuable.

To my own surprise, last year I started a book club, which includes writers, editors and an agent. I still like the whole analysis of books and the discussion of how you achieve an effect. We just read Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle, this endless autobiography, which reminds me of Proust together with reality TV. It’s completely unfiltered, or unfiltered-seeming. I resisted it, though I was immediately told by someone in the group that the author reminded him of me.

Considering both your love of fiction and that, no matter the subject, your focus continually runs to unpacking character and parsing a narrative, why do you think that you haven’t spent more time writing fiction?

I have been for, I shudder to say how many years, working on a second novel, which I actually sold to Farrar Strauss together with this memoir and the essays. In a certain way it’s almost like—not that I’m afraid, but in a way, since supremely well done fiction is my favorite child, I’m almost afraid. It’s a very good question. It had many—the word now, I notice, instead of variations, everyone endlessly says iterations—it had many iterations. In fact, I wrote 212 pages of a novel called The Discovery of Sex that was bought, and I pulled it. Not sure I’ve ever said this. But I did.


Mmm…Scared? It was around some of the scenes that would eventually be taken up in my piece that haunts me, which is that spanking piece from The New Yorker. It was more about a sort of psychological S & M-y type of sexual obsession, which fascinates me to this day, and it was pretty graphic. I look back, and I’m not sure why. I mean my background weighed heavily, because I was brought up in this orthodox way. Since it was fairly graphic, and I think well done, I had this vision that everyone reading it would think that I had done all these things. The women in the book ends up crawling on the floor, naked, and this man of her obsessional life comments on her, and I kept thinking, “god, would X woman in a 5th avenue synagogue think, ‘is this what she came to?’” This book has now taken many turns a thousand years later, and I plan to finish it.

The truth of the matter is I read a ton of non-fiction. A ton. Yet when I find novels I love, I feel an excitement I don’t feel that much about other forms. But there aren’t that many that I love.

Speaking of the literature you love, the Bloomsbury writers crop up in your collection repeatedly. There are also essays on Jean Rys, Sylvia Plath, the Brontës, and Henry Roth. Does your heart belong to another period?

I gave a reading last week with someone who had taken a class of mine. It was in a tiny dark overheated little bar called Niagara, and three women read before me, younger and one not so much younger. But it’s so strange, I thought they all had a kind of hip irony. I read from the title essay, which you know, has its funny moments, but I felt almost like this heavy German intellectual coming in on their heels. I’m not sure I ever sounded that young, because the first places I wrote for were Commentary and the New York Times Book Review. I find coolness one of the world’s overrated values. What’s wrong with sounding too serious? Half of life is too serious. Someone recently sent me an old Joan Didion essay on self-respect that appeared in Vogue. Such a different tone. She was in her own way not someone who overinvested what she said, but she thought more.

In my book group, right now we’re reading Elizabeth Bowen. British, of that same period [as Virginia Woolf]. But I like certain contemporary writers—I did a long piece on Claire Messud’s last novel, which I liked and did not have any problem with the supposedly unlikable narrative. I guess I like slightly headier fiction. I’m reading now Martin Amis’s book, which is set in a concentration camp. I can’t decide whether it’s audacious and it works or it’s just audacious. Something about it I admire and something about it I find unpersuasive. Within a concentration camp, would someone make a joke about the number, the tattooed number? Some of it amazes me, in fact, that he’s tried this. But, even given the necessary suspension of disbelief, does it work? He also has a propensity to use clanking words when he could have used simpler ones. So I keep circling them. I was a book editor for six years. I always read like that.

Could you talk a minute about the notion of being an unreliable narrator? That idea is often invoked in regards to the tricks memory plays, but I wonder how it might come into play in other ways. For instance, how do you balance honesty with any protective urge?

It’s strange, because people often think that if you’re candid you’ve told everything. The truth is even the most candid account isn’t going to tell everything, because you can’t account for everything. And not that anyone would know I have a self-protective urge, but I do have one. On the other hand, I have an equally strong urge to tell secrets. Often on myself. I think I’m willing to implicate myself quite a bit.

But coming back, which I shouldn't be doing, to the fuss that ensued after that spanking piece made me think I wasn’t so wrong. It can get scary. It was quite amazing what people wrote me after that piece. Phone calls. There is a vulnerability in doing this stuff, I feel it. But I choose to do it.

I think the subject of sex remains complicated and is often treated in a porn-y way or sounds too high falutin’. It’s hard to get it right. Maybe I have come more to terms with, somewhere over the years, that people will think whatever they think. People tend to respond less complicatedly if you write in the first person—by virtue of using it you’re closing the gap. And I think disclosure is a tricky thing to do well. Obviously writing isn’t winning a popularity contest, but I think the willingness to not sound shining and admirable takes a lot of courage. It makes me very aware of the difference of a persona in writing, the minute you’re writing, even if it’s your persona that you’re completely candid, that’s already a persona. Obviously, I couldn’t live life spilling every secret I’ve ever heard. Although some, like my daughter, would say I’m incapable of keeping a secret.

So over the years I’ve distanced myself internally. I don’t feel people know me simply because they’ve read my thoughts, say, on my divorce, having come to realize it’s extraordinarily hard to know anyone. Someone once asked me, did I find writing personally cathartic. I don’t think I do. It takes too much effort.

There is a line in Slate’s piece on your collection, “Today’s best female essayists all seem to be wound dwellers.” I wonder if you agree with that?

Maybe. To be honest, I think a lot of good essay writing comes out of that. But I don’t know if I would say that’s what marks…I mean there are also essayists who write about the natural world very well. I think a certain kind of compelling essay has a piece of that. I don’t know what I think of that wound thing. Some truth.