Why can’t more writers be smart enough to be beautiful, handsome, or at least cute
BACKLASH BEAUTIES: (from left) Jonathan Safran Foer, Dana Vachon, Nell Freudenberger, and Katherine Taylor.
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?
Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated, Exteremly Loud and Incredibly Close
Nell Freudenburger, Lucky Girls
Benjamin Kunkel, Indecision
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Katherine Taylor, Rules for Saying Goodbye
Dana Vachon, Mergers and Acquisitions
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.
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 Amazon.com 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.