Book Review: Not That Kind of Girl – Anna Spargo-Ryan

Book Review: Not That Kind of Girl

Book Review: Not That Kind of Girl

Late in the night, I sometimes click on New Post and unravel two-to-three hundred words of some memory I have: bushwalking with shoes full of leeches, the vinyl couches in my childhood doctor’s waiting room, buying clay from the little studio down the road. I love these stories. I write and reminisce and smile and cry and laugh. Here are my stories. Here is my patchwork quilt of life.

Somewhere during the writing process, I realise that I’m the only person who will care about it. No one else can relate to the memory. No one else will have an emotional response to catching two buses to visit my boyfriend, or to eating bain-marie noodles in a dirty food court. So I save the draft and never look at it again.

I think there is a certain skill in recognising what doesn’t need to be said. Obviously, I am not brimming with it, but Lena Dunham’s new book is a study in How Not To Know. In many ways, she’s produced a collection of essays that speak precisely to our culture of narcissism and boggling self-centricity. Long-form blogging.

I was excited to read this book. Not because I am a raucous fan of Girls (though I liked it), and not because I am acutely keen on Dunham herself (though I think she is interesting), but because here is a young feminist with a global platform and a waiting audience, and what is she going to say?

Well, not much.

As often happens with bits of art that fall short, the best part of this book was in the trailer/excerpted on The New Yorker. Being a formerly anxious child and currently anxious adult, I felt an acute camaraderie with Dunham. Yes! I thought. A book about what it’s really like to be human!

“When I was nine,” the first chapter (Take My Virginity (No Really, Take it)) begins, “I wrote a vow of celibacy on a piece of paper and ate it.” Yes! I continued to think. This is going to be a book about evolving, growing, becoming a woman! I thought about the times I had been rejected by boys who weren’t remotely good enough for me, about having my first period, about learning about my body. I thought about being raised by a ferocious career woman, about having a father who champions gender equality, about what it means to prefer boy cats over girl cats.

Some of the writing is excellent. I will help you to find it: Little Leather Gloves: The Joy of Wasting Time (p. 177); I Didn’t Fuck Them, But They Yelled at Me (p. 197); Therapy & Me (p. 205, or in the link above).

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t hide the lack of content. And there is some serious filler in this book. Lesser success comes in the form of a long chapter detailing her daily calorific intake, a tedious in-joke in the form of emails she’ll never send. She writes about hating her body in “Diet” Is a Four-Letter Word: How to Remain 10 Lbs. Overweight Eating Only Health Food, but never manages to connect it to the larger societal issue. In Girl Crush: That Time I Was Almost a Lesbian, Then Vomited, she misses a great opportunity to reflect on the truths of female friendship. Some of the essays read as jumbles of electronic pulses — fleeting grabs of stuff that’s entered her brain and exited via her keyboard. Random collections of thoughts. Blog entries.

Fortunately, it goes on for so long that by the end, you have almost forgotten the Things Others Might Never Share About Thinking Of Your Baby Sister In A Sexual Way. I’m liberated. I’ve seen pornography. I’ve had sex on a train or whatever. But I shifted uncomfortably in the way I occasionally did during Girls, when the “realness” moved into “stuff that other people don’t actually ever do or think about”.

By the tenth rehash of A Time Lena’s Love Was Unrequited, it becomes obvious that what’s missing is not writing skill or even storytelling nous, but worthy experiences. Experiences that can actually speak to Dunham’s feminist beliefs, and experiences that can be related in such a way as to impart some wisdom on young women (or older women) seeking some feminist insight. There just aren’t any. I learned that she loved guys who were no good for her, that she was rarely challenged artistically, that she both loved and fought with her parents. I learned that she had trouble making friends, that she went to college, that her sister is gay. And I got a minute inkling of the difficulties she experienced with mental health. Besides which, many of the more interesting memories are actually borrowed. Chapters detailing Dunham’s girlhood camp experiences are given context from her mother’s camp experiences. These are her mother’s memories, her father’s life advice.

So I will say it, in these words: Lena Dunham has not had enough life experience to write a memoir.

If this book had happened even ten years from now, it might have had the chance to be something remarkable. Or, had it been titled Stuff That Happened To Me Once, it might have been forgivable. But not only does Dunham fail to communicate anything “she’s ‘learned'” (as the subtitle promises) — about being a girl, or about feminism, or love or womanhood or life — she actually doesn’t say much of anything at all.

  • Liz

    October 20, 2014 at 11:10 am Reply

    I opened your review with trepidation – I put down the book half way through because I just couldn’t get through it. Glad to read I’m not the only one, but in intellectual words ;)

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      October 20, 2014 at 3:07 pm Reply

      Haha, thank you! I’m so glad it wasn’t just me in my book hater vacuum, or worse, totally missing the point as usual.

  • JodiGibson (@JFGibsonWriter)

    October 20, 2014 at 11:17 am Reply

    Great review Anna. I haven’t read the book but have been interested whether I should or not. I too wondered if Dunham had enough to write about. It seems maybe not, or perhaps just hasn’t been able to analyse and discuss in a well rounded way.
    Will leave it on the shelf for now.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      October 20, 2014 at 3:05 pm Reply

      Thanks Jodi :) I sort of feel that if she had stopped reflecting on herself for a few chapters, she might have had something. I wonder how many essays were written in the last weeks before the deadline. It does explain where Hannah, her character in Girls, comes from though – much less insightful and much more autobiographical I suspect.

  • Kelly Exeter

    October 20, 2014 at 12:28 pm Reply

    This is the second review I’ve read that expressed disappointment – not in an ‘I expected so much more’ kind of way, but more a ‘this could have been so much more’ kind of way. What a shame! But I will still read – purely so I can have a more informed conversation about it

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      October 20, 2014 at 3:03 pm Reply

      That’s what it is Kel – a lack of what it might have been. I still enjoyed reading quite a few parts of it, but I couldn’t help but wonder what another young (and less self-absorbed) feminist might have done with it instead.

  • Kerri Sackville

    October 20, 2014 at 4:15 pm Reply

    Wow. As a memoir writer I found this review fascinating. I can’t judge my own but I do know one thing: with anything written, anything longer than a blog post (and, for a really successful blog post, EVEN that), you need a really strong thesis. Without a strong thesis, it’s just words put together.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      October 20, 2014 at 4:51 pm Reply

      This was sorely lacking from Not That Kind of Girl, Kerri! I got to the end and had absolutely no idea what she was trying to say, if anything. No real common threads beyond “the mundanities of my life are more interesting than the best days of yours”.

  • Megan // Oh Hey Blog

    October 22, 2014 at 3:24 am Reply

    I’m just about to start reading this (finished Gone Girl a year after everyone else!). I think it’s hard for people in the public eye, especially when they have had massive success in other fields. Success is expected in everything. Good to read an honest opinion and not just claim it is brilliant if you don’t actually think so.

  • Carly-Jay Metcalfe

    December 3, 2014 at 1:21 pm Reply

    Thank you for this beautifully articulated and measured review of Dunham’s memoir, and congratulations for getting through it, because I could not. I too aligned her writing with blog posts, and while they have good bones in terms of the titles, the actual flesh of her writing just isn’t there. Dunham padded out her little vignettes with wordy rubbish, and I truly believe she’s peaked too early and has been published on a whim, with not enough thought about how it’s going to be relatable to both women and men (I know a few guys who are reading it who have similar opinions of her work). As far as I’m concerned, she’s trying too hard to be a fruit when she’s actually quite vanilla. There’s not enough life experience there to hold this book together, and she’s trying to be artsy for arts sake. Now, someone pass me my Joan Didion!!

  • Beck

    December 14, 2014 at 5:58 pm Reply

    Thanks for the review, Anna. It’s such a shame that Lena Dunham did not have an editor kind enough to provide her with some honest feedback about the content and structure of the book. Like you, I enjoyed some parts of the book but struggled through some chapters. Admittedly, I had to skip the diet menu – it was too much.

    Lena Dunham is an unusual character in that for all her narcissism, she doesn’t convey much in the sense of her development as a person or the actual significance of most events she chooses to share in her book. At times, she attempts to use humour to make the occasional flippant lighthearted remark about events that could have made for interesting reading if she had chosen to explore it further. Next time, I hope she has a different editor.

  • gabs

    December 28, 2014 at 1:21 pm Reply

    I was kinda looking forward to reading this book but was a little disappointed too.

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