Lena Dunham in an intimate moment in the first episode of her HBO series, which she writes, directs and stars in. Image source: Vidcap from the HBO series "Girls."
E.L. James and Lena Dunham have one thing in common: they are both women who won the Writing Lottery, gaining incomes in millions of dollars for writing books. (Dunham hasn't written her book yet, she scored a $3.7 million advance on the basis of a 66-page book proposal).
The other thing that they have in common is that their talent does not at all match the rewards they have won (that's why I call it the Writing Lottery -- more on that later). I'm not saying that neither of them is talented, or hard-working, just that the products they produce are, well ... kinda mediocre.
If there were some sort of meritocracy involved in who got money for writing, John Crowley would have scored a 500 million dollar advance for his novel "Little, Big" which is so much better than anything that James and Dunham have ever written or done that it's literally (not figuratively) beyond comparison.
(You may think I am not in a position to judge Dunham's book, as it has not been written yet, but it just so happens I am: Gawker got hold of her entire book proposal and published it online. I didn't read the whole proposal, just glanced at it when the flying monkeys dropped it off. And I CAN'T read it now and you can't either, because Gawker took the proposal down after Dunham's lawyer threatened legal action if they kept it up. However, Gawker DID leave up 12 lines from the proposal which they hilariously appended to demonstrate how self-involved and silly the book proposal is. Read it, it's hilarious.)
Also, I have seen or tried to watch several eps of Lena's HBO series "Girls" which is a lot better than her book proposal but still kinda mediocre. Of course, I am not the demographic for her series (self-involved coastal twenty-somethings who are either wealthy or wannabe wealthy -and who doesn't wannabe wealthy? But still, I know mediocre when I see it, and this is high mediocre ... it doesn't challenge you on any level, unless you are one of those people who is perpetually challenged by the thought that twenty-something women have sex and like it, in which case I'd have to say you're just plain old challenged. Some of the dialogue is kinda witty, the characters are not entirely superficial, impressive for someone Dunham's age, but not brilliant stuff at all.
I think the reason Dunham won the Writing Lottery are almost entirely demographic. She's a rich, pretty (I mean real life pretty, Dunham is Hollywood ugly), smart, Jewish woman living in New York City. Now there are a TON of rich, pretty, smart, Jewish women living in New York City who have not won the Writing Lottery. But Dunham did a few things right. She made a an indie film called "Tiny Furniture" that got some buzz, parlayed that into her HBO series "Girls", and has parlayed the premium cable success of "Girls" into a $3.7 million book deal.
In fact, the art that Dunham has show the most skill at is The Art of the Deal, arguably. I don't see the book deal so much as a reward for great achievement as a case of rich, Jewish, New York publishers anointing One Of Their Own with $3.7 million for being able to do the literary equivalent of toddling about without falling over.
I mean, when Stephen King was writing bestsellers every time he put pen to paper and each bestseller became a successful movie, people were joking that publishers were bidding on the chance to buy his grocery lists. Well, guess what? According to the Gawker article, "Fully 13% of the proposal's pages are devoted to reproducing a diary Dunham kept of what she ate in 2010." Yes, Random House ACTUALLY IS buying Dunham's shopping list for $3.7 million!
Now I can't blame Dunham for being willing to accept this largesse -- I'd be willing to accept it too, if it were offered to me, even on the basis of me fitting the demographic and my grocery lists being the thing to be published. But it does exemplify everything I HATE about the traditional publishing industry -- centered in New York, insular, greedy, myopic, and prone to exploit anyone it can for money, while wasting money on mediocrities that fit its demographic. (Remember when about half of all mainstream novels were about middle aged men, generally academics or publishing industry folks, who were living in the Northeast (often New York) and cheating on their wives while experiencing Mid-Life-Crisis?).
Contrast this with E.L. James and Fifty Shades. I give James higher points for originality and challenging work -- the reason Fifty Shades succeeded was that it did beautifully integrate its BDSM themes into the traditional romance novel structure. Of course, James had a lot of help, after reading the Obsidian Wings website's account of how the Twilight community helped her with editing and feedback, it might reasonable have been given the byline, "By E.L. James, with considerable help and support from the Twilight fanfic community."
It can be difficult to integrate this sort of scene into a traditional romance, but E.L. James managed it, with plenty of help and feedback from the Twilight fanfic community. Image source: Training of O.com.
But the fact that James started her book out as straight up fanfic under the name “Icedragon Snowqueen” shows me that she started out just wanting to write a story that she enjoyed and cared about, working with the Twilight community to make her book better in a very humble and creative way. There was no Art of the Deal here, just Art, pure and simple.
In fact, it was the Twilight and online community that made "Fifty Shades" a success. They bought the online version in droves, and when Amazon's numbers showed Fifty Shades beating the crap out of the sales of the traditional publishing industry's bestsellers in the online marketplace without a BIT of help from all the publicists, agents and marketers that were flogging THEIR books, well, it didn't take a LOT of brains to see that the thing to do was to get that book printed up and in stores and get the hype machine going for it.
So, even though E.L. James just an average-looking Brit middle-aged housewife with no connections to the New York Publishing industry (the book had originally been published by Australian outfit that specialized in publishing converted fanfic to non-fanfic after the process called “filing the numbers off” had been completed), the publishing industry started a bidding war over her manuscript, netting her milions when Random House won.
But here's the difference between what Random House bought from James and what Random House bought from Dunham: James' book was a completed manuscript that had already been proven an online bestseller, beating THEIR bestseller. It was NOT a 66-page writeup, 13 percent of which consisted of a listing of what foods James at in 2010.
You see the difference? A purely economic decision, no demographics involved, for the seven-figure advance James got for her book. (I can't find any more definite figure for E.L. James' advance than “seven figures” so it could be as little as $1 million or as much as $9 million … I would not be surprised at all to learn that it was less than what Dunham got for her book proposal.)
Now in my opinion James' book is a pretty good romance novel, but not a great one, and not a great book. It is mostly a triumph of technique, like John Norman's Gor novels, of seamlessly integrating BDSM sexuality into an existing genre (in Norman's case, sword and sandal fantasy adventures).
But the point is, it got bought because it was loved by its readers and fans, not the publishers whose first instinct would be to ignore such a book. “Fifty Shades” got thrust upon the publishing industry, the publishing industry did not thrust it on readers, as is their usual practice. That in my mind has merit. The book may not be great literature, but people love it.
If you want to read a GREAT novel, try John Crowley's fantasy novel “Little, Big.” It has no BDSM sex in it, and although there is sex it is not at all graphic. But what it is, is beautifully written, with an imagination on a scale that takes you completely into another world, in a very sly and intelligent way. THIS is a book that succeeds of merit. All I know of John Crowley is that he lives in the Northeast and does research for film and video documentaries for a living. He may be Jewish, wealthy, a New Yorker, or not, I don't know, and I don't care. HIS book has merit. WHATEVER the means by which it was published (I'm betting an editor read it and fell in love with it as so many have) is all right with me.
But I'm pretty sure that Little Big did not get any seven figure book advance. I REALLY doubt it got six figures. Five figures … maybe, I think Crowley had several books published by the time “Little, Big” came out. But it could easily have been just four figures, it's fantasy. But, damn … what a MASTERPIECE. Read it, I dare you. Used copies are for sale real cheap over at Amazon if your finances are straightened.
Now the marketing machinery is going to grind out its releases for Dunham's book, and for all I know, it may be good, but I doubt it. It is clearly, “Item designed to appeal to readers for a variety of demographic reasons.” So do yourself a favor. Buy Little, Big, instead, or search out some good fanfic that might appeal to you. Don't let Random House recoup its stupidly given advance to Dunham with your dollars.