Whether you like Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls or not, she’s inescapable, especially now that she has a sort of memoir out. She got an advance of several million dollars for it, which is newsworthy in itself, of course, and that’s what publishers count on. Money talks, or it gets people talking.
One thing that’s struck me about how she’s been covered in the press is the impression news stories create that she came out of nowhere: she did her second little indie film on a tiny budget, it went to a film festival, and before you know it, boom! she’s writing and starring in a controversial cult hit TV show and being seen and quoted everywhere.
It’s a satisfying American tale that stirs our hearts: we love stories of simple folks with humble origins making it big. But Dunham’s real story doesn’t fit that classic narrative at all. Both her parents were well known artists in New York. Their fabulous Tribeca home where she shot her second movie (funded by her parents) was put on the market recently for 6.25 million dollars. The family also had a Connecticut summer house when she was growing up. She went to Oberlin College, where tuition is currently $50,000 a year, and her sister went to Brown.
We like to believe that talent alone is what gets us recognition in America, but it’s really not true here or anywhere else. I recently taught in a six week summer program for Michigan State University students studying in London. One of the courses was a creative writing class where students could work in fiction or creative nonfiction. We had terrific guests including the international best-selling author Val McDermid who was very honest about her success. She listed three crucial things: talent, hard work, and luck. “I know writers just as good as I am who haven’t been as lucky,” she said, surprising the class.
I’d add something to her triad: connections. Growing up in New York, plugged into any kind of artistic or media circle the way Lena Dunham was through her parents, is starting off in the best possible way if you’re going to be a writer. To her credit, Dunham hasn’t blurred the fact that she grew up very privileged, but the media seems to. It’s a better story the way they tell it, more egalitarian, more “American.” It plays to the myth that we all start out equal and have the same chance in life to make it. But that’s nonsense.
Any midlist mystery author struggling to stay afloat in the current publishing climate would be thrilled to have started out in life with the kind of background and connections Dunham has. An aspiring writer in any genre would love to reach the heights she already has in her mid-twenties, thanks to the boost her Mom and Dad gave her just because of who they were and who they knew.
It would be as good as starting a mystery series if you were, say, Benedict Cumberpatch’s younger brother, or married to one of the writers of The Walking Dead, or your parents were editors at Knopf. You’d have an instant platform that agents and publishers would salivate over, and priceless connections. You’d get profiles in the New York Times–like the son of editor and author Gordon Lish recently did. The way ahead would be more than clear for you: it would be paved with gold. Your success wouldn’t be guaranteed, but something crucial would be: access and exposure.
Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mash-up.
You can read about his other books at http://amazon.com/author/levraphael.
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