Success is Easier When You Start Off Ahead of the Pack

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.

4th Annual L.A. Loves Alex's Lemonade Event

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


9 Responses

  1. It’s hard to make that point without sounding whiny, but you’ve done it, Lev. Thanks from all of us who’ve had to carve our own path.

  2. Thanks, Lev. Because you managed to neither whine nor scream, you spoke for all of us who would probably have a heart attack if we got a decent advance.

  3. I think connections are the luck. I’m not a writer, but I sympathize.

    • I think luck and connections can intersect but they’re also different. You’re lucky if you win an award, but if your mother has a best-selling memoir, then that’s about connections when you go to sell your own memoir. I think the same pertains in other fields.

  4. I guess 99% of all writers can relate to this, Lev. In real estate they call it Location! location! In the literary world it’s Connections! Connections! I can name a dozen writers I know or know of who qualify for the latter. And it’s not me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: