Books: Finding the bravery to bare it all

Awkwardly administered blow-jobs, fumbling one-night stands and painfully overanalysed relationships with guys who turn out to be just jerks – anyone who shied away from the unembarrassed honesty of Lena Dunham’s Girls is going to want to take a Valium before braving contents of her memoir.

When the news broke that the 28-year-old writer, director and star of the hit TV series had been offered $3.7m to pen a Caitlin Moran-esque guide to being a girl, the sad truth is that there were a lot of people out there gunning for it to be disaster.

Dunham has already, in just three years, become everything the struggling twenty-somethings on her show long to be: a cultural icon, a critically acclaimed media darling and the new best friend of playwrights and pop stars. No wonder she inspires such vitriol from certain critics – it’s enough to make anyone feel inadequate.

But while readers nursing a bad case of schadenfreude is going to find more than enough extracts to gleefully howl over, Not That Kind of Girl certainly isn’t the car crash they were hoping for. Yes, it could have done with a more rigorous editor but it’s a common side effect of wild success that the people who are paid to rein you in start becoming too scared to do their jobs – just look at the latest Donna Tartt or Martin Scorsese.

The book would be considerably punchier without one or two of the more rambling chapters, but despite this Dunham’s memoir is packed with sharp insights and engaging vignettes. She reveals the terrible, intimate secrets that – in the name of gathering the best material – are frequently shared in writers’ rooms: judgements of other people, “confessions of the way we really feel towards our significant others… I wonder how many loved ones watch TV looking for signs of their own destruction”.

In I Didn’t Fuck Them, but They Yelled At Me, she vows to one day wreck vengeance on the Hollywood suits who tried to take advantage of her when she first arrived in LA; the jaded “Sunshine Stealers” desperate to feed off the excitement and curiosity of the young.

She talks about the emotionally unavailable lovers who used her for sex, the boyfriend who thought he was “being really deep by dating a chubby girl” and the joy of finally – after sleeping with so many toads – finding true companionship with her current partner, Fun guitarist Jack Antonoff. “The first time we made love,” she writes “it felt like dropping my keys on the table after a long trip.”

In the sections on her family, you can see where Dunham gets the bravery to emotionally and physically bare all in her work. When her mother, the artist Laurie Simmons, was Lena’s age, she was making art out of photos of her naked body, believing that all its vulnerable imperfections were worth capturing: “I’ll never be this young again. Or this lonely. Come one, come all, to my private show.”

Nora Ephron lived by the mantra that “everything is copy”. Dunham dedicated her book to Ephron and what she’s given us here is the raw copy of her life. It’s not perfect, but it’s fascinating, if only for showing how the mundane fears, hopes and heartbreaks of an ordinary life can provide the material for a “voice of a generation” defining series.

This article appeared in The Evening Standard on 2 October 2014