Last Friday, Gawker published Lena Dunham’s proposal for her upcoming advice book, “Not That Kind of Girl.” After being contacted by Dunham’s legal counsel, Gawker removed the proposal but kept twelve selected quotes from it on their website, with snarky commentary following each one.
I won’t link to it but here’s an example:
“I’ve been in therapy since I was seven.”
Update: The quoted sentence is revelatory of Dunham’s character in that it provides evidence that she has been examining her own thoughts and desires analytically from an absurdly young age. It is also indicative of a nauseating and cloying precociousness that permeates the entire proposal.
What really gets my back up about this is how critical people are being over these unauthorised snippets of Dunham’s writing. This is not her book, people, these are quotes from a pitch document that were deliberately plucked to validate the scornful opinion of Dunham that the writer clearly already had.
While I’m a fan of Dunham’s work I can respect that a lot of people aren’t. That’s completely okay. Her films, TV series and essays aren’t to everyone’s tastes. But we shouldn’t be judging her unfinished work.
The book isn’t done yet. Get it? Let Dunham write it, re-write it, get notes back, re-write it, get more notes, re-write, re-write, have a break (down) for two weeks, have a fresh read, re-write, re-write, re-write and when it’s published- go to town. Rip it to shreds, whatever. Dissing quotes from a development document is like walking around a construction site and then telling people that the house is going to be a piece of shit and the builders are hacks. Ah, no. They haven’t finished building the bloody house yet. Critiquing a work-in-progress is pointless, unfair and extremely counterproductive for professional writers.
Screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin discussed this issue in one their excellent Scriptnotes podcasts. Here’s Mazin on why this behaviour is anti-writer:
“We have drafts for a reason. You cannot write a final draft first. Anyone who actually writes for a living, who understands what writing, or painting, or writing a song, or sculpting something knows what I mean when I say: it’s not done. We’re working — ING — on it. So if you put it on the internet like it’s done and review it like it’s done, you are hurting something that was not meant to be read or seen.”
The Gawker piece and the ensuing criticism of Dunham’s writing might seem harmless, but this kind of unauthorised publishing and critique can have negative implications for working writers. Random House have been stung, they won’t want any more leaks, so I’m guessing Dunham will have to agree not to show her manuscript to anyone- not her agent, not her most trusted mentors and friends. Essentially a normal stage of the development process gets put into lockdown.
Writing is not like turning on a tap. It’s fucking hard work and it doesn’t come out perfectly the first time. A pitch document is not a final product, and taking quotes out of context in order to destroy a writer is just plain low.
I could easily flip through a book and find a sentence that sounds lame out of context.
“The thing about dead people is that they look really dead.”
“The first time someone hit me up for a cigarette I was twenty years old and had been smoking for all of two days.”
Individually, are these sentences insightful pieces of writing? Are they painting a concept in a way that you’ve never thought of before? Are they describing feelings that you’ve never been able to articulate? Probably not. The extracts are from David Sedaris’s ‘When You Are Engulfed in Flames.” Reading Sedaris in the normal way (ie. a finished chapter that he’s chosen to publish) makes me belly-laugh; reading these isolated quotes doesn’t. But they’re not intended to be read in isolation.
Back to the Gawker piece for a second. The writer also decided to calculate a per-page price for what Dunham’s proposal was worth as if to say: this is what Dunham is being paid $56,000 a page for.
It wasn’t just the proposal that got Dunham got a 3.7 million dollar book deal. She got it off the strength of her past work, her fan base and because she has a unique and powerful voice.
Do you think fans of Girls (the series she created, wrote, starred in and directed) have read the quotes and thought, “This writing is terrible, I’m so not going to buy her book”? No effing way. They’re going to buy the book that Lena Dunham wrote because Lena Fucking Dunham wrote it.
There’s a famous Hemingway quote about re-writing that I think is pertinent here. It’s from an interview he gave in 1956:
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
Let Dunham get her words right. (Don’t judge a book by it’s leaked contents.)