Lena Dunham’s New Book Is an FU to Her Critics
Beloved by her fans and loathed by her critics, Dunham will provide hearty catnip for both with her new book—an uncompromising excavation of her 19-year-old self.
Lena Dunham has made a career out of oversharing, from appearing naked more often than not on Girls to recalling in her warts-and-all memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, the first time a guy went down on her, after a college party to benefit Palestine (“I felt like I was being chewed on by a child that wasn’t mine.”)
It is this tendency to overshare that made Dunham “the voice of a generation,” beloved by fans and loathed by critics, the harshest of whom diagnose her oversharing as solipsistic, gratuitously provocative, and misguidedly arrogant.
Why does she insist on parading her doughy naked body on television, they ask? Where does she get off describing her periods and glorifying her every sexual experience in a memoir?
Indeed, criticism surrounding several sexual experiences detailed in Not That Kind of Girl sent Dunham into a Twitter “rage spiral,” as she put it, and prompted a subsequent apology. But the controversy perpetuated book sales, so much so that Dunham has come out with a new book in defiance of her critics.
The surprise, limited-edition collection of Dunham’s college diary entries—a 56-page chapbook titled Is It Evil Not to be Sure?—sold out in less than an hour after it was unveiled Tuesday afternoon on her Lenny Letter website. Proceeds from the 2,000 signed, first-edition copies of Dunham’s latest confessional will go to a mentoring program, Girls Write Now, that helps teen girls develop their writing voices.
Dunham announced the book’s release for readers’ “pleasure/horror” on Instagram Tuesday morning, an acknowledgement that she knows better than anyone that the journal she kept between 2005 and 2006 will, like everything else she’s produced, be divisive.
Later, when she urged female fans to tweet their teenage memories, the social media site saw a deluge of 120-character recollections of travels, tattoos, lost prosthetic limbs, and nipple compliments.
When Dunham’s friends embraced Twitter in 2009, she realized she “already had experience with the peculiar potential of the format,” she writes in the book’s introduction, because she’d spent a year in college tirelessly documenting “tiny pieces of visual and verbal ephemera, emotional pleas, and strongly worded messages of rage and pain directed at no one in particular.”
Many entries from the diary, which she titled “Creative Snippets and Observations” at the time, read like the Twitter feed of an expressive, self-absorbed 19-year-old girl, who searches for meaning in the mundane and catalogues her day-to-day life in a series of stream-of-consciousness musings and emotional non-sequiturs.
A lot happened to Dunham during the year she kept the journal: She lost her virginity, was both sexually rejected and promiscuous, battled mental illness, had melodramatic falling-outs with friends, and “became intimately familiar with the crusty bite of intentional cruelty that gives that special tang to so many of our adult interactions,” she writes in retrospect. “It was a primer, this period, for both the joyful irony of adulthood but also for its inevitable losses.”
As teenage diaries go, Dunham’s subject matter is predictable (boys, sex, love, self-doubt, anger). Her entries evoke the immediacy and raw emotion we often see in Twitter rants, when users impulsively press send. Later, having cooled down, they walk back their self-righteousness with a reflective sentiment.
“I want to rip her face off, hold it up, watch her watch me in shock as her cheeks bleed in my hands,” Dunham writes in a jealous rage about a girl Dunham’s boyfriend abandoned her for.
In her next entry, she addresses the boy who wronged her with unexpected maturity: “I think you could have handled the whole thing in a more considerate way, been a bit kinder to me. And I’m sure I could have done better with it all. But these things are hard to navigate…”
Dunham is often disarmingly insightful, too, wary of pretentiousness and posturing among her peers at Oberlin. So when her younger lesbian sister, Grace, snaps at a girl for feeling up her skirt at a party, Dunham jots down the girl’s comically absurd response: “I was just being ephemeral.”
The voice throughout is unmistakably Lena Dunham—self-pitying, navel-gazing, dryly funny, passionate—but more nihilistic than that of the feminist and activist we know today. It is also thd voice of her younger self, reminiscent of the character she played in her debut feature film, Tiny Furniture.
Recounting how she once composed a poem in her head during sex, she observes herself in the scene with surprising irony: “This is just more evidence that everything in my life is about me.”
The college-aged men she fools around with remind her of being in a “boring waiting room, I’ve read all the magazines.”
Even when wallowing in self-pity or crippled by self-doubt, she’ll acknowledge her strengths, bitter that the boys she likes can’t do the same: “Frustrating, isn’t it, when nothing short of peeling back your skin will let somebody know how smart you really are.”
The diaries reflect a young Dunham at her most annoying and most brilliant, depending on whether you’re a critic or a fan. Those who lean critical will appreciate that, unlike her memoir and her writing in Lenny Letter, Is It Evil Not to Be Sure? is refreshingly devoid of ideology.
We see glimpses of the passionate, progressive feminist she is today when she writes about sex (“His dick keeps slipping out. As a woman, I’ve been trained to believe this is my fault.”), but most of it is inflected with humor, like the best episodes of Girls.
We can all relate to the growing pains that come with being 19, of being embarrassingly self-serious at one moment and appropriately silly the next.
This is where Dunham succeeds most, accomplishing what she set out to do by publishing her diaries: encouraging and inspiring young people to write, to “commit their experiences to paper” because “only you will ever have these particular experiences and we won’t want to have lost them after you go.”
Later, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that writing about those experiences helped you through the growing pains and informed who you are as an adult—and, as Dunham writes, “that the sentences might become the planks that form a raft that drags you ashore, wet and gasping on a welcome beach.”