Does Lena Dunham Prove Writers Are as Toxic as Investment Bankers?
Despite the romanticized images portrayed in film, television, and of course books, being a writer actually means spending most of your time doing one of six things: writing, thinking about what you want to write, thinking about what you actually have to write to make money, chasing payment for what you have written, agonizing over the fact that another writer is possibly being paid more than you are for his writing and, obsessing over whether that writer is more, or less, talented and deserving of said payment than you are.
This means that thanks to her multi-million dollar book advance, not to mention her hit television show Girls, (which just began its second season), Lena Dunham has driven plenty of writers to a level of resentment bordering on mania that makes Salieri, the mediocre composer driven to an insane asylum by the not-at-all mediocre talents of Mozart in the film Amadeus, look sane by comparison.
Even though writers and artists are generally thought of as the emotional and temperamental opposites of those who inhibit hyper competitive fields like professional sports, law or investment banking (which is so competitive studies have deemed it physically unhealthy), the truth is plenty of artists are even more competitive. After all, I don't think I've ever heard a tennis player ranked number 10 in the world complain in interviews about how incredibly overrated that Roger Federer is. Of all of the lawyers I've met, I can't think of one who's talked my ear off about how insane it is that another attorney with celebrity clients is pulling in a ridiculously unfair hourly rate. Yet these kinds of conversations consume writers. I've had them with writer friends. They've had them with other friends. We've all had them with our agents, husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, or parents. And many have had even more of those conversations in the last year, and a lot of that has to do with the success of Lena Dunham.
A google search of "I hate Lena Dunham" now produces more than a million results, (summarized here) which is quite a lot for someone who entered the public consciousness less than a year ago. The question is why? I asked a mental health expert. Dr. Jeff Gardere, said in his experience professional jealousy among writers, and other people in the arts and entertainment can be more common than in other professions, because the same traits, and ego, that attract people to fields in which their work will be the center of attention are the same traits that drive someone to intense competitiveness that can manifest as professional jealousy. (Ouch. But, hey, this writer did ask.)
Now before the eye rolling and angry comments from my writer colleagues begin, I want to be clear: not every person who is a critic of Lena Dunham is jealous. But the level of vitriol she has inspired in some corners signals that there is more to the story than some simply not agreeing her talents are up there with Tolstoy -- and Dunham is not the only writer to inspire such reaction.
When literary wunderkind Jonah Lehrer's career imploded the undertone of glee with which some in the media seemed to be celebrating was palpable. For some it wasn't just celebrating, but a sense of relief, like a baseball player learning that his teammate who was breaking records, while he was stuck hitting singles, had actually been using steroids. (At the height of the Lehrer scandal writer Jonathan Shainin tweeted: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice knows that he's actually in the schadenfreude business.")
Danielle Belton, a former print journalist who launched a successful career as a blogger before transitioning to television as head writer for the BET talk show Don't Sleep, with T.J. Holmes said of professional jealousy among writers, "A lot of this stems from what measures a 'good' writer is really rather abstract... Writing isn't like sports. It's very subjective, like art." Belton went on to note that because the definition of what constitutes great writing (and other art) is essentially indefinable, writers will always resent certain writers who receive more critical acclaim or financial success because no matter what others may say, that writer might consider his or her peer less talented than he is. To her point, even his competitors who loathe him (I'm looking at you Isiah Thomas) can't say Michael Jordan had no talent. His professional record beating them speaks for itself. But there is some writer out there who is convinced Ernest Hemingway was a hack and Mark Twain was an amateur.
As a black woman who has written about diversity in the media and entertainment, I am certainly sensitive to legitimate criticism of Dunham's work, particularly the lack of cast diversity in the first season of Girls. (Something Dunham herself appears to have discovered a newfound sensitivity about as well since she is attempting to remedy that this season.) But the most vocal criticism of Dunham has boiled down to this: Dunham is from a privileged background (she is) and the cast is comprised of other people from privileged backgrounds (they are.)
The thinking goes: privilege is the only reason she got a show in the first place. Oh and by the way her book advance is too big.
Dunham is from a privileged background. Her book advance is big. Really big. So big it will take a miracle for the publisher to recoup it and as a result there are some other authors who may not get signed for a book this year, or next, because of the millions going Ms. Dunham's way.
But that doesn't change the fact that if someone offered me $3.7 million for a book deal, I would take it, and let the publisher worry about the money. There are few people on this planet that would do differently.
Just one small detail. Most of us have never been offered $3.7 million for a book deal, and never will.
That's not Dunham's fault though. Most writers know that, but a good number seem to resent her anyway.
My thoughts on the role of privilege and nepotism in society, particularly in competitive professional environments are pretty well documented. In a nutshell, privilege and nepotism are bummers for the rest of us, but not going anywhere, but at the very least beneficiaries of nepotism should be gracious and acknowledge the benefits of being born on third instead of acting like they hit a triple. They should work their tails off and justify being given the opportunity that they may not have earned to prove everyone wrong who believes they don't deserve to be there.
I'd say Dunham did that with her Golden Globe wins last night.
While I certainly wish I had her book advance I don't hate Lena Dunham. The main reason I don't hate her is because after five years working in media as a minority from a non-privileged background I have finally accepted that privilege gets most people in the door -- particularly in fields like media, fashion, entertainment and even politics. But it's no longer enough to keep you there. Just ask Pippa Middleton about the future of her writing career.
But the main reason I don't hate Lena Dunham is because resenting her career does nothing to help my own. As Gwen Cooper, New York Times bestselling author of Homer's Odyssey and of the forthcoming Love Saves the Day: A Cat's Novel, put it, "I will occasionally envy another writer's talent, but that doesn't make me feel bitter -- it makes me feel that I need to work harder on my own writing, so I won't have to be so dissatisfied with it."
And Dr. Jeff Gardere said this is ultimately the key. If you not only want to survive, but thrive in extremely competitive fields, professional jealousy can be healthy, if you channel it the right way. "It can be helpful if someone says, 'I want to be better than that person,' then they may push themselves to go even further... Professional jealousy is okay as long as you don't allow it to consume you and become feelings of hate for the other person. Use it to help you get to the next level so you can be the best that you can possibly be."
Cooper went on to add that the other reason she doesn't dwell on writers who may be less talented but more financially successful is because, "there are at least ten other writers who are more talented than I am, doing more artistically important work than I do, who will never even be published."
Susan Fales-Hill, a former writer for The Cosby Show and the author of Imperfect Bliss said in lieu of jealousy she tries to channel the words and spirit of the late African-American opera singer Camilla Williams. Williams, a predecessor of Marian Anderson's watched as her friend's career eclipsed her own and she was largely forgotten by history. When asked if she was bitter, Williams replied, "I don't believe in bitterness. Bitterness shows up in your song."
It can also show up in your writing.