I have had a love affair with the nonfiction essay for quite some time. There is just something about the look of first-person prose on the page, or the sound metaphorical curtains make, as they are ripped ajar, exposing a window into the author’s personal exploits. Yet, in recent years I have witnessed the collection of fellow admirers grow increasingly fewer. The memoir genre has become synonymous with pretension, self-promotion, and less associated with the finer literary arts. I speculate this has much to do with the current generation’s fascination with what some might term an “over-share” culture, where nothing and no one is sacred, a culture for which baby boomers have nearly perfected a disdain.
For the millennial generation, the writer most known for putting it all out in the open is twenty-eight year old Lena Dunham. Dunham shook the celebrity world almost overnight with her success as writer-director-producer-actor of the hit HBO series Girls. On Tuesday, Dunham’s rumored 3.5 million dollar book deal hit the stands, as well as my Amazon shopping basket. The world got a sneak peak in early September when The New Yorker published an excerpt entitled, “Difficult Girl: Growing up, with help.” It is on all accounts a well-crafted essay: her prose is neat, quippy, and always subtly (if not habitually) self-effacing. She weaves a series of experiences neatly together, all reflections on her lifelong relationships with psychiatric therapists and the significant, strange bonds that can manifest from sharing the intimate details of your life with a professional, a stranger. Each glimpse into the personal life of Dunham’s psychologist, Margaret, provides her with thrill and validation for their one-sided relationship. She ruminates on the smallest details,
Then there is the autumn day I come in to find her with a shiny black eye. Before I can even register my shock, she points to it and laughs: “A bit of a gardening accident.” I believe her. Margaret would never let anyone hit her. She would never let anyone wear shoes indoors. She would always protect herself, her floors, her flowers.
The irony is not lost on me. Dunham learns the art of self-exposure from a young age, draws on this in her professional career, and now her literary one. In the many anticipatory reviews surfacing over the last few weeks leading up to the release of her book, Not That Kind Of Girl, I have heard Dunham’s work categorized as a memoir, a collection of personal essays, an autobiography, self-help, and something akin to an advice column. These diverging critics, unable to decide which genre to pigeonhole Dunham into, got me thinking. What does the leap from nonfiction essayist to memoir look like? Dunham is by no means capable of reflecting back on a long life of mature experiences, tying the knot of her life into a neat bow of profound meaning. She uses moments from her youth and young adulthood she finds potentially interesting as inspiration for creative prose. Which raises the consideration, if a twenty-eight year old can write a memoir, then maybe there is more to this dreaded genre than meets the eye.
A New York Times book review labeled Not That Kind of Girl a “Memoir-ish” literary exploit, “a kind of memoir disguised as an advice book, or a how-to-book (as in how to navigate the perilous waters of girlhood) in the guise of a series of personal essays.” But this explanation is incomplete. Dunham’s essays are nonfiction, but manipulated. Her prose is confessional, yet imaginative. She admits within her pages that she is an, “unreliable narrator,” fabricating details as needed. Her work, like the author herself, refuses classification and points to the beginning of a contemporary motif that might be here to stay: celebration of the eccentric, the unabashed. Many have criticized Dunham for putting a magnifying glass to a culture saturated with privilege and the benign dilemmas that ruffle the feathers of the white, middle/upper class. Less controversially, others have wondered why a young person, who has had so much success in the booming market of premium television, would take the risky shift into the print medium, especially as book sales have come under attack with the emergence of eBooks and Kindle. But there is one moneymaking trend that seems to prevail over all, which Not That Kind Of Girl takes very seriously: shameless self-exploitation. Dunham exposes her flaws and turns them into entertainment, rather than leaving them as idle sources of ridicule for others to deploy. The New York Times Magazine summed up their praise rather poignantly,
She is perhaps to the millennials what J. D. Salinger was to the post-World War II generation and Woody Allen was to the baby boomers: a singular voice who spoke as an outsider and, in so doing, became the ultimate insider.
In the wake of such admiration, the literary world sits poised, ready to accept a new function of the nonfiction memoir genre: the cultural observer. A celebrity wrote Not That Kind Of Girl, but this is not a tabloid rag of celebrity gossip. In the weeks to come readers and critics will decide whether Dunham’s ascent into literary recognition will land amongst the Bad Feminist Roxane Gays of the world, or in the sale pile next to Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? — no offense Mindy. I think it is possible for personal essayists to trade in such unsightly trademarks as “narcissistic” or “hack” for the nobler pursuits of creative freedom and prose that probes at the pulse of modern-day life. It is time for some nonfiction light to shine on contemporary talent, and that talent might look a lot like Lena Dunham.