Aesthetic genius

Why can’t more writers be smart enough to be beautiful, handsome, or at least cute
By SHARON STEEL  |  August 30, 2007

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BACKLASH BEAUTIES: (from left) Jonathan Safran Foer, Dana Vachon, Nell Freudenberger, and Katherine Taylor.

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Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated, Exteremly Loud and Incredibly Close

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Nell Freudenburger, Lucky Girls

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Benjamin Kunkel, Indecision

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Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics

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Katherine Taylor, Rules for Saying Goodbye

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Dana Vachon, Mergers and Acquisitions
When I saw Marisha Pessl in the New York Times Style Section, meticulously posed on an antique chair wearing a pair of buttery leather high heels and a coy smile, I cringed. Pessl was responsible for 2006’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a Nabokovian coming-of-age mystery that had become my favorite novel of the year before I had even finished it. Her story follows Blue van Meer, an unlikely heroine who undergoes a series of personal transformations — and one major physical alteration as well: the proverbial ugly duckling turned swan. While I was reading about Blue, I often turned to the book-jacket flap to gape at Pessl’s photo. She stared back at me, an Audrey Hepburn in sweet black-and-white tones, someone who wouldn’t be out of place on the Ford Models women’s board. Pessl was, in fact, also an actress and a model. And she had written Special Topics, a New York Times bestseller, when she was only 25. But were the fuck-me boots in the photo really necessary?

Literature, unlike so many other media industries, is technically a meritocracy. But that won’t stop book marketers, bloggers, critics, and the literary community at large from collectively slobbering over a pretty author. No, the literary rules changed ages ago. Books no longer need to be serious in order to be published; there are fewer and fewer venues available for reviews (rendering competition more intense with every passing catalogue season), and critics aren’t doing their job unless they are merciless. Perhaps as a response to all of this, publishers have begun to count on their authors to do double-duty — to act as sex symbols as well.

The definition of beauty worship is still evolving, but if you thought phrases such as chick-lit or post-apocalyptic were annoying, wait until bloggers and reviewers start pegging authors as everything from “Lit Boys” (WASP-y Ivy League graduates with floppy hair who’ve written yet another coming-of-age book) to “literary wunderkinds” (they’re changing the state of fiction as we know it, right here, right now, grab your inhalers!) to “literary ingénues” (so endearingly innocent they’ll wrap you and your $24.95 hardcover book budget around their soft little finger). Armed with such superlatives, many of these writers go on to be inducted, from the first flush of their careers, into the postmodern canon of Hot Young Authors. Every published writer is bound to receive a varying amount of raves and pans, sure, but this group is special: each has been held to scrutiny not simply because of the hype their books have received, but because it has been suggested that their youth and appearance have given them an advantage that a less striking yet more gifted writer would never achieve.

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