Dear Phil, Jane, Evan,
Haha. Just kidding. Sort of.
If life is a scavenger hunt, there are two things I can’t cross off my list. One is a genuinely happy marriage. The other is a dead writer—one who stood the test of time—who wasn’t a selfish jerk to his or her nearest and dearest. I spend a lot of time with Milton, and however stunningly virtuosic he came to be, his college writing, while still quite good, is clearly the work of a pompous ass. His “greatness” describes specifically and exclusively his skill as a writer; it is not transferable to his personal qualities. However much integrity he had (lots, selectively applied), I’ve never come across an account of him that led me to think of him as a nice man or even a good man. In Hannah’s terms, being a good friend was not one of Milton’s primary concerns.
I’ve said before that what I really admire about Girls is that it lets its characters be every bit as flawed and selfish as people are in life—male or female–and lets them suffer the consequences. I don’t know what made the eighties and early ’90s so much more normal when it came to female characters on mainstream shows. Several things occur to me as contributing factors: one is the rise of the supermom with the concomitant rise of female sexual villains (Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction), the other is the increased volume of feminist critiques of the latter. Far be it from me to say that feminism spawned a spate of anodyne women—instead, I think TV and film executives got the garbled message from the Culture At Large that it was important to produce “positive role models” for girls and women. Positive role models are anathema to great story-telling, being exactly what they sound like: positive, posed and fake. But they make for tremendously successful sitcoms.
The more I think about the sitcoms of the 90s, the more convinced I become that they serve the same cultural function as advice columns: they establish a consensus of what constitutes an acceptable society. This is why people care so desperately when sitcom characters do polemical things. (Ellen, anyone? Roseanne?) If they were mere entertainment, who, really, would care?
They tend to be set in New York because New York is the place where social norms are most likely to be challenged. Elaine can exist as a character because New York is a strange space in America. It’s a place where a zany woman who can’t dance can hang out with three men without romantic overtones getting in the way. It’s where the oddball extremes of acceptable behavior can be explored and policed.
Friends paved the way, of course, making the story of a single working adult in New York City into a safeish fantasy of huge apartments and swathes of free time. No one has any hard edges; everyone is puppyish, well-intentioned and harmless. Monica was famously the least likeable one because she was mildly neurotic. What cultural work did it do? Well, it made the spate of single adults living differently from the previous generation lovable, and inspired the new generation to be lovable. Seinfeld does the same for a slightly older group of adults. It isn’t about nothing; every episode revolves around the question of what is or isn’t socially acceptable, and what to do in the Wild West of New York when the social contract is violated.
New York on HBO was wilder still. Hypercorrecting for the glut of Evil Women who turned up in movies like avenging furies now that they were Working, Single, and Sexual, the Sex and the City girls took over. They naturalized and reclaimed the behaviors that had characterized the Evil Women, ushered in the explanatory voiceover, and made a population that had felt invisible visible. No one could have foreseen that the formula’s success would have the unintended effect of temporarily reducing the palette of female behavior to four colors.
Jane and Evan have both noted the show’s callbacks to Sex and the City, and how it’s the paradigm Girls has to break. Phil, you wondered whether Hannah is a good writer, and whether we would see her work. I’m struck anew by the fact that Hannah, the self-described creative nonfiction writer extraordinaire, is not telling this story. Phil’s right: we don’t see her notebook or her diary, and we’re forced to rely on outside characters’ reactions to her work.
I think there’s a reason for that, and it’s this: Dunham resists Louie’s model, where bits of the “real author’s” work appears throughout the action of the episode, because she has to resist Carrie. Any shot of Hannah writing—any of shot of a young woman in New York in front of a computer—will conjure the specter of Carrie Bradshaw. That’s how completely Sex and the City has wiped out all the other female writers in New York.
Which brings me to my hypothesis: Tally is Carrie Bradshaw on crack. The sex writer whose Mr. Big died! Sex and drama, all wrapped up in a young and marketable package. In this episode, we saw the beginning of Hannah’s long quest to slay the beast. The question isn’t whether Hannah’s any good (although I have some thoughts on that I’ll get to in a sec); the question is whether there’s room for another kind of nonfiction writer in a literary world saturated with women writing autobiographical ruminations on their sexual escapades and/or dramatic stories of loss.
No wonder Hannah didn’t write about the boyfriend who was a hoarder; she was simultaneously worried that she had worked too hard on it (Tally’s shot in the dark praising Hannah for how she labors over things told) and that it was too close to Tally’s subject matter. Tally writes about a boyfriend she loved who killed himself, Hannah writes about a live ex-boyfriend. Which is the better story? It’s a lovely touch, then, that Hannah’s sourness and envy lead her, in a burst of “hate-writing,” to unconsciously imitate Tallie’s process (or Tallie’s account of her process). She shows up at the reading and says she’s decided to read something that for all intents and purposes just “poured out of her.”
It doesn’t work, of course. “It didn’t really come together for me,” says the prof, with the kind of honesty that makes her go giddy for his praise and his condemnation of Tally. (Incidentally, the sexual-paternal vibe between a male professor and a female student is such a staple of undergraduate Creative Writing programs, but it was totally fascinating to see that underbelly shown on TV—I hope it goes nowhere.) Hannah knows it didn’t work and goes home, feeling like she’s lost it, or maybe she never really had it, and quickly devolves into the nastiest, most appetitive and writerly version of herself.
The thing about trying to be a writer, generally, is that no one cares about what you write. They don’t, and they won’t, until you try and fail a billion times and keep forcing people (or paying them) to read you and react to you. (Poor Marnie.) To write is to scream for attention. If you happen to be a writer of creative nonfiction, it’s even worse, because you can’t even pretend that you want the attention for “the work” and not yourself. You are the story. The story is you. Or, if you’re not interesting enough, the story is the people you know. Hannah’s working in an extremely crowded niche. If Sex and the City paints womanhood in four colors, memoir paints creative nonfiction in two: there’s dramatic, and there’s funny. If you haven’t—as Hannah hasn’t—been given the gift of a dead boyfriend, her only recourse is humor and self-deprecation. This is why Girls sits uneasily in the category of comedy, even though it’s often funny. It’s much closer in genre to the personal essay. Each episode is essentially an essay, and essayistic humor is its own animal; quieter, darker, and—in the hands of its greatest practitioners—full of, and sometimes even motored by, autocriticism.
As for friendship, David Sedaris points out that few figures are as selfishly cruel as a funny nonfiction writer:
After finishing our coffees, Lisa [his sister] and I drove to Greensboro, where I delivered my scheduled lecture. That is to say, I read stories about my family. After the reading, I answered questions about them, thinking all the while how odd it was that these strangers seemed to know so much about my brother and sisters. In order to sleep at night, I have to remove myself from the equation, pretending the people I love expressly choose to expose themselves. Amy breaks up with a boyfriend and sends out a press release. Paul regularly discusses his bowel movements on daytime talk shows. I’m not the conduit, but just a poor typist stuck in the middle. It’s a delusion much harder to maintain when a family member is actually in the audience.
That’s from “Repeat After Me,” an essay that ends with Sedaris begging his sister for forgiveness in the only way he can: indirectly, sincerely, and pointlessly, because he’s not going to stop. The only reason Hannah has “passed” as a good friend is that nobody wants to read what she writes except Ray and Charlie, who aren’t in it for literary reasons. When Charlie “publishes” Hannah by reading her work aloud at a gig, she turns to Marnie, asks her to remove herself from the devastating description of her relationship, and wonders what she thinks of the passage just as a piece of prose.
We’ve talked before about Hannah as monster, and she is: she’s as bad and worse than Milton, without being anywhere near as good. Her only hope of redemption is becoming a hell of a writer or giving it up and deciding to be a good person instead. Phil, I’d guess, in answer to your question, that she’s on the shallow end of her arc toward Good Writerhood, because—well, Lena/Hannah, this is a portrait of the artist as a young woman. And she’s insufferable but all too real. It occurs to me that one thing Louie has going for it that Girls doesn’t is that Louie’s old, established, a good comedian. He’s already scriggled to the top so we don’t have to see the ugly parts of him—the arrogance, the cruelty, the neglect of his partner and friends—that preceded his rise. Professional success and good fatherhood (especially good fatherhood) mask a multitude of sins. Louie is basically sympathetic. As a person, he’s almost irreproachable. In this sense, Dunham is the braver and more ambitious storyteller.
It’s to Dunham’s credit that she manages, like Sedaris, to show the obliviousness even budding nonfictionists must cultivate in order to sleep at night, while showing the writer experiencing that obliviousness as real (Hannah really doesn’t see, while she and Marnie are fighting, that what she does is cruel). It’s to Marnie’s credit that she sees the gaping holes in Hannah’s self-knowledge and doesn’t point them out.
In “Repeat After Me,” David Sedaris and his sister have just seen a movie that eerily parallels their own relationship. He’s told her that a director is planning to make a movie based on his work, so they’re sitting in the car panicking, “each of us imagining a bored audience shifting in their seats.” Lisa eventually tells him about something terrible that happened to her, that has her sobbing by the end. “Dusk,” Sedaris writes, as if turning their life into a screenplay. “The camera pans an unremarkable suburban street, moving in on a parked four-door automobile, where a small, evil man turns to his sobbing sister, saying, ‘What if I use the story but say that it happened to a friend?’”
The first time I read that passage, I remember thinking that there was a word that disqualified it as a screenplay. The word is “evil.” The camera can show a small man, but it can’t show the monster he is on the inside. That’s the trouble with screenplays, and it’s what essays can do so well. All these years later, it’s fascinating to watch Dunham trying to make a script do exactly this.