Aesthetic genius

By SHARON STEEL  |  August 30, 2007

Agents of do-me feminism, such as Naomi Wolf, Candace Bushnell, and Jane magazine, said it was okay to be girly, confident, and in full possession of one’s womanly wiles. And the publishing industry has made a point to effusively court good-looking male authors ever since Hemingway appeared on the scene. But in the post-do-me feminist, post–Harry Potter publishing climate, nobody can predict what the Next Big Thing will be. So it makes sense, if you can’t force a phenomenon, to attract readers to books the same way you’d attract them to another human being. Instead of confining sex to the text, publishers have been quietly whoring out their authors in the best way they know how.

“It’s incredibly difficult to get anyone to read, i.e. buy a book, in our joyously semi-literate age,” says Steve Almond, an Arlington-based writer and the author of short story collections My Life in Heavy Metal, The Evil B.B. Chow, and the memoir Candyfreak.

“It’s easy to blame the folks in publishing for being so superficial and cynical,” says Almond. “But the fact is, it’s the culture at large that enforces these values.”

Writing and publishing are businesses. Literature still has to sell. And when you’re working on a book that is in competition with the other 170,000 tomes published each year, clawing for rankings, review coverage, and the hilariously impossible lottery of Oprah’s Book Club, things can get ugly. Which is why it helps if the author you’re marketing is, well, pretty.

Looking good
The publishing industry is a lot like Hollywood: cruel, unpredictable, and rife with disillusionment. That doesn’t stop thousands of hopefuls from wanting to carve out their own stake in it. Youth and aesthetics have always been a major marketing currency — that’s why coming-of-age novels will be reinvented with every new generation. Nearly all of the books by the Hot Young Authors are of this variety. Everyone needs to write the book only they can write about what it’s like to be a postmodern adolescent in a postmodern world dealing with the sorts of postmodern problems that, inevitably, sound poetic instead of horrifyingly awkward.

“It’s easier in life to be attractive. That’s reductive but true,” says HarperCollins editor Gail Winston. “On the other hand, a brilliant book by an author who is not young and not attractive isn’t going to fail. It’s just, I think that those other books — for those reasons, those authors maybe get a little bit of an advantage.”

Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is one such example. Foer, 30, wrote 2002’s Illuminated as a Princeton undergrad. It caused an uproar when it was published: as much of a fuss was made over Foer’s age as his writing. He was young — very young, even by the industry’s standards. He was also the definition of nerd-handsome. Wire-frame glasses, a significant smirk, crisp button-downs paired with frayed jeans. Did his age and his looks get him his contract? Probably not, but it certainly didn’t make it harder for him. And nobody was surprised when he married Nicole Krauss, a Stanford grad, novelist, poet, and dark-haired beauty from Long Island. Aww. Two literary wunderkinds in an overpriced Brooklyn pod.

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