Lena Dunham’s Book Gave Zadie Smith Noun-Shame

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Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/BAM

In conversation at Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of their Unbound series with Greenlight Bookstore, Zadie Smith told Lena Dunham about her experience publishing a novel at age 25, in which reviewers praised her for writing "like a man." She in turn, praised Dunham for writing like a woman — “like the women I know, like the woman I’ve become, like my friends.”

Dunham recalled a chapter in Not That Kind of Girl in which the word vagina is employed repeatedly. She said: "My editor did tally them up and say, ‘Do you really want to do this?’" Dunham maintained she did. She continued, "I’m so radically offended by the way women’s magazines have started talking about these things but have also glossed over them, like the way that we have now a dialogue happening about women’s bodies, but it’s all obscured by cutesy language."

Smith confirmed, "It’s just extraordinary. Like I picked up a Cosmo at the dentist’s office that said, 'How to Have Really Good Anal Sex.' I was like, 'Okay, come on then, Cosmo, let’s do this.'" She says the first suggestion was candles, and continued, "It’s all the same information since 1952. They just change the nouns."

Returning to noun questions, Smith did circle back to what she called "a preponderance of vaginas in this book."

Z.S.: When I was reading it, I was on a plane, I was reading it, enjoying myself, and then I got to the section with the vaginas, and I found myself saying to you in my head, “Stop writing vagina.” And when I got to the end of the flight, I was suddenly really and profoundly ashamed of myself. I was thinking about my generation of feminists who consider themselves very good feminists, old-school feminists, you know second generation. What is my problem with Lena saying vagina over and over and over in 20 pages?

L.D.: Maybe it’s a literary problem. Maybe it’s a thing where you’re like, Get a thesaurus.

We'll take a vagina with a thesaurus over a penis with a thesaurus any day.