PLANK OCTOBER 16, 2012
My colleague Laura Bennett published a great article in the most recent issue diagnosing a problem with the media’s most beloved Millennial cultural purveyors. She called it “you-ism.” Many urban, creative-class type twentysomethings—her examples include the writers of Thought Catalog, blogger Emma Koenig, and of course filmmaker/writer/actress Lena Dunham—essentially regurgitate their life experiences onto the digital page and expect, accurately, that it will be treated as original, even artistic. “‘You-ism,’” Bennett writes, “is less a matter of twentysomethings trying to understand their circumstances than simply taking inventory of their feelings, reassuring themselves by projecting their worldview onto the world.”
Author Shani Boianjiu would seem at first glance to be another such twentysomething, albeit not an American. Her debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, invites, even demands discussion of her own life, which, she made clear in a New York Times interview, was indispensable grist for her fiction. But because Boianjiu is not an American but an Israeli, and because her book is not about looking for semi-employment but serving in the army, she is likely not to receive the same complaints. Manning a checkpoint near Hebron feels weightier than properly selecting which Brooklyn café to patronize.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that the reason Boianjiu’s novel deserves to be taken seriously is that its subject matter is gritty—just as it would be a shame if Thought Catalogers and their ilk caused us to write off all privileged young Americans who want to spin their comfortable lives into art. Nobody thinks Hemingway was a great writer because he drove an ambulance in the war.
Before attending Harvard and writing her novel—more precisely, a collection of linked stories—Boianjiu, 25, who hails from a small town in Israel’s north, served in the Israel Defense Forces as a weapons instructor. This is the job of one of her book’s three main characters, all of whom are young Israeli women in the IDF. Its concrete details—how to fire a rifle; how to throw a grenade (you watch it at all times, lest your hand hit something as you wind up to hurl it)—and the emotional state of a teenage soldier enforcing an occupation are not the sorts of things an author could easily imagine. It is clear her novel is spun from her own life.
But a Thought Catalog-level chant about being in the IDF (“What It’s Like To Be A Soldier”) would, I bet, read roughly as vapidly as Thought Catalog’s narratives of dating noncommittal dudes or pining after unrequiting girls. They might tell you facts about being an Israeli soldier that you did not already know, but they would not really give you greater insight into what it is like to be them. Despite the subject, it would still be “you-ism”—shallow recitation.
The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, by contrast, is literature: carefully wrought, consciously structured, creatively imagined. Dealing with Palestinian protesters whose lifeblood is media attention is surely absurd and surreal; but it’s surely not as literally as absurd and surreal as it is in “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker (“this story is not at all autobiographical,” Boianjiu said). In the hands of a lesser writer, a love affair on a scorching army base would read like prurient gossip; Boianjiu meshes it with the reason why the young lovers are on the base in the first place to create a story that has something to tell everyone.
Boianjiu is almost inevitably compared to America’s most prominent twentysomething you-ist, Lena Dunham. Googling the two yields several joint citations. Haaretz editor Aluf Benn flatly tweeted last week, “Boianjiu is Israel’s Lena Dunham.” They are two young women of almost the same age whose characters bear obvious similarities to themselves; whose work deals frankly with sex and female friendship; and who are pegged—by design or by accident, ironically or sincerely—as voices of their generations.
The comparison is more than superficial, though, and should alert us to something about Dunham, who in the past weeks has received her share of backlash due to the (admittedly imposing) size of the advance she got for her first book. At her weakest, Dunham probably is the “you-ist” Millennial par excellence. But in fact, much of her work, and particularly her HBO series Girls, is imaginative art that harvests her life to make something smarter than just flat documentation. More to the point, it is—at least according to this amateur critic—good. Just because Dunham’s life has not included anything remotely as high-stakes as serving in the Israeli army doesn’t mean she has nothing worthwhile to say. Like Boianjiu, she should stand and fall on the basis of her talent. It would be unfair to say Dunham’s experiences cannot make good art, and it would be even more unfair to say that Boianjiu’s art is good only because of her experiences.