Recently I was asked to give my opinion on this article on authors and beauty. I advise you to read the article and form your opinions before hearing mine.
July 16, 2001 — What if the only way a magazine would run a short story by Eudora Welty was if she agreed to an accompanying photo in which she posed as the protagonist of her story — a "'Sex and the City'–type woman," say, "wearing a bright red spaghetti–strap dress and sandals"?
What if Nadine Gordimer had to agree to a shot where she's wearing a low–cut blouse and "kneeling on crushed velvet"?
What if Philip Roth had to pose "staring blankly while holding a fat pug inside a Bulgarian restaurant"?
No self–respecting editor would propose such insulting childishness, of course, to such esteemed writers.
I don’t know. Is this their first time getting publishing? Now? And they were young and relatively attractive people with no other publishing prospects?
But in a move that's generated considerable comment — the first description above comes from a Washington Post report, the others from the New York Observer — the New Yorker just made three younger writers model those exact poses for its "Debut Fiction" supplement to its annual fiction issue: Jonathan "Bulgarian Restaurant" Safran Foer, Nell "Crushed Velvet" Freudenberger, and Erika "Spaghetti Strap" Krouse. A fourth twentysomething, Gabe Hudson, was made to pretend he was writing at a picnic table beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, with the Manhattan skyline behind him.
It’s not clear here whether the New Yorker gave them an option to say “no” to various aspects of the photography, such as how revealing the clothing was or how ridiculous it made them. As much as I don’t care for the New Yorker, I imagine they would be somewhat willing to deal with my own religious modesty requirements.
"They told me what clothes to bring," said Krouse. "I had to embody the main character, which made me uncomfortable because she's a bitch."
Well, yes, silly, because young writers generally do not know how to dress for a photo shoot unless they happen to work or have worked in fashion or magazines. If the New Yorker called me up and said they wanted to do a photo shoot, my first question would be “What am I supposed to wear?” I’d ask them for details. Maybe a book with colored pictures. Otherwise I might show up dressed in a Snoopy T-shirt because it was the thing not in the laundry basket and a flannel over it because I dress like I’m still 13 and Nirvana is fresh and popular. Generally people do not know how to dress outside their sphere of “what events do I attend that require a certain style of dressing?”
As for her being unwilling to identify with the main character, I have some sympathy for that. Score one for you. Unless you wrote some piece about someone who's your age bracket, has the same job as you once had, and generally looks like you. Then you shouldn't be surprised.
"It's the book jacket principle," New Yorker fiction editor Bill Buford told the Observer.
A principle that only applies to young writers, apparently — E. L. Doctorow, also featured in the issue, was not pictured along with his story.
"If anything, [the photos] contribute to the culture of authors being good looking or young in order to receive attention," Don Lee, editor of the literary journal Ploughshares, told the Observer. "That's the aspect I find of it that's a little bit disturbing."
Or, as reporter Linton Weeks put it in the Post, "Looks sell books. It's a closed–doors secret in contemporary American publishing, but the word is leaking out.
My problem with this segment is not that it says that looks sell books and if you’re hot, chances are the publisher will put you on the back cover or even the front cover where they otherwise not have. And young writers are more likely to be hot, because our society tends to favor people between the ages of when you turn legal and 30, so that’s going to skew it.
The problem it isn’t universal, as these people imply. Most writers are only featured on the inside back cover of the book jacket, if at all, because they might not want to be pictured or they might have a disfiguring grape wine stain. And hopefully the authors who are featured are intelligent enough to have their photo done by a professional photographer. I was once reading a Victorian-type fantasy book by a poor fellow, who shall be unnamed because I’m insulting his looks. For the first book, his wife took the photograph in their basement, and let’s just say that it was less than flattering. Also, 300-pound men should not have acne or ponytails. By the third, he’d figured out to have someone else do it, and not in a basement, and maybe he shouldn’t be wearing a T-shirt for it.
Leaking out because, if for no other reason, the rookies in the New Yorker "Debut Fiction Issue" often reap the kind of astonishing rewards that earn headlines. After he had a story — and his photo — in last year's issue, for example, David Schickler signed with the Dial Press for what was reported to be a $500,000 two-book deal. Z.Z. Packer, who also had a story in that issue, sold her story collection to Riverhead for $250,000.
Their writing probably was also probably of some quality, at least by the standards of literary short stories that the New Yorker likes and I hate. And hey, look – a new author just got $500,000 for two books! It CAN happen to you! That’s a success story more than anything else.
But this year's issue generated an even more stunning deal. No sooner had the "Debut Fiction Issue" hit the stands than Nell Freudenberger — you remember, crushed velvet? — found herself in the middle of a "clamor for a collection of her short stories," as Inside magazine put it. She signed with New York's most powerful literary agent, Binky Urban of the ICM agency, and within days, Inside reports, had "received at least one pre–emptive offer of $500,000" for that collection of stories.
I want to highlight this. Amanda “Binky” Urban (and I hope that she wanted that name) is not New York’s most powerful literary agent. Or maybe she is, but probably not. Yes, yes, she’s with ICM, the agency with triple offices in New York, Los Angeles, and London, so Mrs. Freudenberger is definitely in good hands, and Miss Urban has an impressive client list of young authors.
That said, she is not New York’s most powerful literary agent. Or maybe she is. I don’t know. No one knows. How exactly do you rate “most powerful?” Is it the person who does the most deals per year? Or the person who does the least deals for the most money? Or some 60-year-old living entirely off his 15% of the royalties of a deceased author still in copyright, and who only has to take the yearly check and send the other 85% on to the estate of the author to make a living? We don’t know. Agents don’t even try and guess at this, unless it’s at a party and there’s an open bar.
There was just one seeming hitch: the 26–year–old — who happens to be an "assistant" at the New Yorker itself — hasn't written any other stories. But nobody seemed to care. Publishers continued to make offers for the kind of money that not even the best short story writers — John Updike or Alice Munroe, say — would get for a collection.
That is pretty damning evidence, if she didn’t write any other stories. Nonetheless I will mention that John Updike, one of the best living short story writers in the world, probably did not get $500,000 for his Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Rabbit is Rich. Why not? Because he wrote it in 1981. Maybe today, he gets that kind of advance, even for novels like Terrorist, but certainly not in 1981.
All of which sadly proves what the Washington Post's Weeks says about looks selling books. There was, after all, little else to sell in this instance.
And all of which sounds nuts. Are an author's looks alone worthy of a half-million dollar advance? Do people really buy books — or magazines — because the authors are young and skinny and resemble movie stars?
Well, if it’s more likely to sell, it probably will get a bigger advance. That’s just business sense.
There’s another issue I want to address here, which is that the article’s arguments are against the New Yorker, which is a magazine. It is generally in a magazine’s best interest to have good art and pictures of beautiful people, because people do not like to look at blank pages or pictures of ugly people. (And Newsweek, please, please stop running those ads for donations to the organization to treat cleft pallets. I know it’s a charity, but I need a warning before I see those pictures!) What probably happened here is that the editor, for whatever reason, decided that the “Debut Fiction” issue was going to feature author pictures instead of art, and then someone else said, “And let’s make sure they look decent. Hire a photographer.” If the ensuing brouhaha resulted in some shady book deals and some young authors got rich off poor material, that’s not great, but “authors getting rich” is not a phrase I hear very often.
Well, they may get what they pay for if they do: Schickler's book — named after his New Yorker story, "Kissing in Manhattan" — came out last month and has been getting uniformly dreadful reviews.
This is why I don’t read short story collections by authors with only one publishing credit: They’re usually bad.
But as the Schickler case also shows, people may not be as shallow as this kind of marketing takes them for — his book isn't selling near well enough to make back the phenomenal advance. In fact, according to Inside, the entire Barnes & Noble chain — which includes B & N, B. Dalton, and barnesandnoble.com — has sold only 1,222 copies of his book nationwide.
Of course, there are numerous other bookselling outlets, but B & N is the coutnry's biggest, and those stats may be telling. They may indicate how tired of this kind of marketing people have become, not to mention how devalued the New Yorker's imprimatur has become to savvy readers.
Go readers! Yay! In the end, quality triumphs hotness. Though, some writer got rich. I want to be that rich writer. I want to sell out. Please! I will! Just give me half a million dollars and I’ll do a photo shoot, but I won’t wear something that exposes my shoulders. That’s my line in the sand.
None of which is to say that Freudenberger's book, or Z.Z. Packer's, which isn't out yet, won't be good. And none of which is to say that reading first fictions isn't exciting in itself.
But certainly, this kind of marketing is an indicator of the major shift that has occured in the book business, where just a few short years ago editors still judged books by contents and not covers.
It's also a mark of how far the New Yorker has fallen. The fact that the magazine exploits the younger writers, but doesn't include a photo of Doctorow, speaks clearly to the nature of what's going on, and it's insulting to writers and readers, both.
You don't need a picture to see that.
My argument with this argument is that the shift happened 15 years ago (not three), when Tina Brown was hired as editor of the New Yorker. That’s sort of the benchmark we use for the decline in the short story and literary fiction.
While most of the facts checked out for this article, it's important to view it within context. Yes, some sketchy things happened here, but trust me when I say this is not why your manuscript about a small-town grocery store owner stopping terrorists from blowing up the Vatican didn't get accepted. They are separate issues. Plus, let's give the writers who appear in the debut fiction issue some slack. They probably had to sleep with someone important to get in there, and that's more than I would do.