Aesthetic genius

By SHARON STEEL  |  August 30, 2007

Lucky Girls still won the PEN/Malamud award, though Freudenberger’s sophomore novel, The Dissident, about a Chinese performance artist, garnered a few wishy-washy reviews and only scored a 5.6 on Metacritic. The curse of the sophomore effort doesn’t just apply to bands: critics mused that Freudenberger had fallen prey to a classic trap, and that The Dissident’s failings were a result of Freudenberger’s being pushed too fast and too hard. She was talented, yes. But given that she was also young and pretty, and therefore especially desirable to publishers, had she been force-fed on the public as a kind of artificial success, one that couldn’t help her growth as a writer? She’d secured her good fortune. But did she deserve it? Did she earn it?

“The combination of fair-to-middling — or even strong but underdeveloped — talent with attractiveness and youth seems to be eternal catnip to publishers, if not reading audiences, and I think that’s a shame,” says Emily Gould, Gawker’s co-editor and a former associate editor at Hyperion. Gould, who has co-written a young-adult novel titled Hex Education, looks like Harry Potter’s Emma Watson might 10 years from now. She composes many of Gawker’s posts on the current stable of Hot Young Authors, commenting on recent mainstream media frenzies regarding literary merit versus a writer’s physical appearance. “What I am deeply, passionately opposed to,” Gould says, “is all the ridiculous praise that’s heaped on just-okay books because of the looks and pedigree and other accomplishments of their authors.”

Gould cites Pessl, now 28, as a unique case in the cadre of literary paramours. “I have a lot of respect for Marisha Pessl,” says Gould, who wrote a rave review of Special Topics for Publisher’s Weekly before she came to Gawker. “But she’s a great example of someone who just seemed hell-bent on spurring the backlash to her own book along, doing silly fashion shoots for women’s magazines and delivering ridiculous quotes that made it seem like she didn’t understand that being able to become a full-time writer — thanks to an i-banker husband’s salary — at 25 is, you know, kind of a luxury!”

In March of 2006, Jessa Crispin, the editor and founder of, published a short piece in The Book Standard that questioned why publicity departments tend to work overtime when they are assigned a book and author that came pre-packaged with a huge advance and a sexy back-story. While Crispin ended with the observation that “hopefully soon, the positive reviews will rank higher on Google than does the gossip about money,” she was wrong. When you google “Marisha Pessl,” the first item to come up is Crispin’s article.

Pessl’s image eventually became so ubiquitous, Gawker developed a Professional Hotness Scale, which attempted to reconcile where the “avatars of attractiveness” for various jobs fell on a real-life scale. In other words “book hot” Pessl’s real-life equivalent was the “girl that your ex-girlfriend totally oversells when trying to set you up on a blind date.” But Gould still believes that Pessl’s work, in this instance, really does speak for itself. “I think she’s a good enough writer that her career will persist when her cuteness fades.”

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