Saturday, August 18, 2007

Authorial Beauty Contests

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 preemptive 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 — 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.


jjdebenedictis said...

I recall that "freakishly" good looking writer who wrote you regarding how to get her foot in the door using her looks. Your readers responded the way the writer of that article did, but it sounds like the beautiful freak had a valid tactic in mind.

At least the phrase "looks sell books" appears to only apply to selling books to publishers. The public likes its eye candy, but it buys books that are good to read, period.

Anonymous said...

No fair, Rejecter, that one needed a beverage alert. You do a whole piece about whether or not it's fair to sell books with looks, then, right at the end, slip in the crack about them probably sleeping with someone? There goes my keyboard!

I think your point about the magazine is the most telling one here. Magazines need pictures and pictures of poeple sell better than pictures of things. Pictures of pretty people, better still. If I had the legs for it and I thought it would sell books, I'd be in a little black dress in a New York minute. Since I don't, guess I'll just have to write well enough for people not to care what I look like!

Anonymous said...

Honestly, no magazine is going to ask George R. R. Martin to pose if they can get someone hot. Why would they? But George is the one who's got my dollars, thanks.

Laura K. Curtis said...

>> They probably had to sleep with someone important to get in there, and that's more than I would do. <<

And after that, what's a picture, really?

I never look at an author's picture on a book jacket before buying a book. And sometimes, when I've seen them once, I try to avoid seeing them again! But it certainly wouldn't stop me from buying their books.

I recently had to send a head shot to a magazine for a typical "contributors page" thing. Nothing scandalous, just a picture that my husband took of me in our kitchen. It seemed silly to me at the time, and still does, because I can't imagine anyone cares what I look like. But that's the magazine's editorial policy, and it doesn't matter if you're good looking or not--they just want their readers to connect in some way.

Granted, Art Jewelry isn't a magazine that publishes fiction, but I can't say I've seen any particular upswing--or downturn--in the popularity of the beads I wrote about based on my looks. I can't imagine that fiction would be any different.

(Maybe it's just that publishers figure that any author willing to pose in some ridiculous fashion to get into a magazine will be willing to do even more ridiculous forms of publicity for their books, thereby selling more?)

Anonymous said...

I think you're right. Until the early '90's, even most hugely successful author pictures on books
were informal, save of course for the extremely posed "AUTHOR" photos. Even commercial fiction. I don't think Robert Ludlum ever used a really formal photo on his books, and he had an acting background which meant he knew all about head-shots.

Then all of a sudden there were the Glamour Shots. Every paperback I picked up had a fabulous looking author. Kind of trickle-down Dallas-era look. I know no one looks like that in real life.

The one that gets me today is Ann Coulter.

Maria said...

Good, well-thought out article. I enjoyed it.

As Miss Snark might say to anyone too worried about the looks issue: quit analyzing, overanalyzing, complaining about the way things are, the way things should be and...Write!!!

Niteowl said...

This may be an indication that the public doesn't buy according to the authors looks; or more likely, it's that the public doesn't give a rat's ass what the New Yorker thinks or publicizes when it goes to find a good book to read.

Honestly, who really checks up on the latest, 'hottest', author at the New Yorker before buying a novel? Not that they aren't good. Not that they might not become a major literary force. It's just that the New Yorker (and other literary mags) maybe aren't as important to the public as the magazine (and more importantly the Publishing Industry) thinks it is.

Anonymous said...

Good commentary, Rejecter. Definitely a fascinating article.

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.

YMMV, but I actually thought Kissing in Manhattan was one of the better short story collections I've read in a long time. It has a few weak spots, but there are some truly fantastic stories in there. If you wind up with some free reading time, consider checking it out of a library. Again, YMMV, it's probably not for everyone, but I do feel it got shafted when it came to reviews.

Jeff Draper said...

Remember, there's a reason Ann Coulter appears on all her book covers.

Anonymous said...

For the sake of balance, I can say that I read through the entirety of David Copperfield before I ever saw a picture of Charles Dickens, and I didn't enjoy it any less. I sort of imagined he looked like Mozart, for some reason. But we all know what Shakespeare looked like, and that adds to the character of his work. We know what Hemingway looked like. Orwell. Old F. Scott. Few of us can conjure the image of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy except as a looming bearded "creature," neither beast nor man. We have busts of both Plato and Plutarch, but not of Homer. Oscar Wilde and Honore de Balzac both have pictures. Mark Twain. Nietzsche. Yukio Mishima. Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov have their faces tied to their names. Percy Bysshe Shelley. J.D. Salinger. By memory, however, I cannot recall the looks of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Franz Kafka, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Jane Austen, Miguel de Cervantes, and Voltaire. They say Einstein's image made him famous. We can say that of Old F. Scott and Hemingway. Possibly Shakespeare. Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, and Benjamin Franklin had faces, too. They weren't "sexy," but they had character, and that's more important than anything.

Anonymous said...

So you don't want to see pictures of beautiful authors used for promotion, fine, but then you attack NEWSWEEK for "running ads for donations to treat kids with cleft pallets," because you need "warning" before seeing those pictures?

Yes, NEWSWEEK should absolutely be shallow and bend to your needs to not be made uncomfortable by seeing poor, needy children wtih cleft pallets that can easily be fixed by donations.

Good God, what was NEWSWEEK doing, not consulting you on this issue?

Anonymous said...

Were you kidding when you said they probably slept with somebody? Is the whole industry corrupt? I don't think I'm overanalyzing this. If it's corrupt, I would like to know, so I can be prepared. I've never slept with anybody before, so it would be my first time.

Anonymous said...

I wish I'd known...
When I was young and handsome, I figured I couldn't yet write my novel because I hadn't yet lived enough. Not enough real experience to hang meat on the bones.
Now, when I have the experience, the looks have fled.

Richard said...

I think it is just a case of people trying to read too much into particular behaviour. The New Yorker does what it thinks is going to help it sell magazines. As imelda mentioned, magazines are visual media and require pictures - preferably, large glossy appealing ones.

Anonymous said...

I personally know someone who debuted her short fiction in The New Yorker. She did NOT have to sleep with anyone. She had a good agent and a lot of connections through her family who are all in the film business.

That being said, the concept of cheesecake writers is gross.

The Rejecter said...

I was kidding about the sleeping with someone part. It's just insanely hard to get into the New Yorker, and you usually you have to know someone, or know them well, or be married to them.

Anon 7:50:

I'm not questioning Newsweek's integrity. I love Newsweek. I've read it about every week since I was 16. That said, a baby with a cleft pallet is a disturbing image and generally when you see one on a respectable website or the television, they give you a warning first.

Austin Williams said...

"Go readers! Yay! In the end, quality triumphs hotness."

For now...

Twenty more years of pin-up pics for author's profiles, and we'll see how easily a quality author who isn't also eye-candy can get published. To me this seems unfair and irrelevant. As much as quality triumphs hotness presently, I cannot say I am optimistic about this development. Our society is very good at ditching substance for style.

I suppose we'll see further down the line...

Anonymous said...

Regarding this Nell person. Isn't there some sort of conflict of interest, if she is an 'assitant' at the New Yorker? Sounds unfair to me.

Anonymous said...

I don't quite get why we are discussing an article dated 2001. It seems all rather moot by now. Are we so hard up?

Anonymous said...

"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."

The math doesn't add up here. Three years ago was 2004, not 2001 as the article is dated. Did Rejecter dig up an old essay she wrote in 2004 (about an article written in 2001) and post it because she had nothing else to post? I dun get it.

Anonymous said...

In this whole article and ensuing post by The Rejecter, the only thing I find truly disturbing is that John Updike is called the greatest short story writer. Really? I can't believe anyone would brand that overheated, florid twaddle as great. Seriously?

I can't even begin to capture how stinky his work is. Florence King once wrote an essay about it that is sharp and hilarious. It is a brief epistolary in which she corresponds with her publisher about the crotch-high mountain of garbage that is John Updike's writing.

Julian said...

So am I the only one who doesn't see what the big deal is? If you're an attractive individual, why not use your looks to try and gain an edge?

Please don't confuse this with "sleeping with your publisher/agent/boss in order to get ahead."

However studies show that those born beautiful -- male or female -- are often more successful than their more plain-Jane counterparts. It's more or less rooted in trust; we trust beautiful (read: symmetrical)faces because we see them as signs of vitality.

I mean, look at Danielle Steel. Her grammar might be atrocious and her stories aren't anything all that special... but she *is* an attractive woman, and her author photos certainly reflect that.

Then again, I do live in Miami and work in PR, so maybe I'm just biased? Looks are certainly a way of life down here, that's for sure!

Anonymous said...

Huh. I hardly think "crotch-high" describes a mountain, although I guess that would depend on the crotch, wouldn't it?

Anonymous said...

This raises the question: Why do they even allow unsolicited manuscripts? If it's all run on a basis of exclusive nepotism, why don't they just tell us?

One might look at it from the slush reader's perspective. Mountains of garbage a lot worse than Updike's crotch monument. Your sensitivities are being blasted by thousands of unskilled attempts, diminishing all resistance against pessimism.

There are two ways to distinguish yourself: Write so that your words prove the power of your vitality or manipulate the social network. I imagine a slush reader would maintain a preemptive contempt for all unsolicited manuscripts. It's an impersonal process, however much you contort your innards while doing it. An editor is more affable to see you as a person if they're familiar in some respect. It's just easier to make friends than to do your job. What if we all vow never to be lazy? Would we be complaining right now?

Anonymous said...

Excellent, another reason why I can't publish there. I'd look terrible leaning on crushed velvet.

Don't really see what looks have to do with anything. Yes, it helps, but so does good cover art just the same.

Anonymous said...

And by the way, as far as powerful literary agents go, I'd certainly say Ms. Urban is up there -- she's basically a legend in the publishing industry...I read an article saying she got Charles Frazier 8 million dollars for his second book off a one page proposal! That's good enough for me!

Anonymous said...

I saw an article that said Binky Urban sold Charles Frazier's second book for 8 million dollars off a 1 page proposal. That qualifies her as the most powerful literary agent in my book!

Austin Williams said...

"I mean, look at Danielle Steel. Her grammar might be atrocious and her stories aren't anything all that special... but she *is* an attractive woman, and her author photos certainly reflect that."

That is precisely why this is a big deal.

Rick Bylina said...

I'd pose nude with an appropriately placed hot dog bun if it got me into the "New Yorker" and a $500K deal for one of my unsold novels. ;-) The sight of me like that would incite a veritable tidal wave of editorial chum and publicity.

If you're an unknown and you think your pic will help with sales, you need to take advantage of every angle available. Once you become the 500 pound gorilla, then you can use the photos from your basement. Now, where did I leave that glamour shot of me?


Anonymous said...

You should leave this post here and let us analyze this controversy until it's dried up. There isn't enough conflict for us to suck on. It seems like it may be an injustice, but we're not sure. Doesn't one deserve to benefit from every aspect of their character?

By the way, how does one get eight million dollars for their second book? There must be a secret entrance that we can exploit. Does anybody know anybody? What is the criteria? Past performance predicts future performance, I know. Don't screw up the first time. Is that the best advice ever?

Does anybody have any big ideas? We need more geniuses, dammit.

Lisa Romeo said...

Sadly, looks matter. All things considered, if the publishing genie asked me if I'd rather have a smidge more talent or a whole lot better looks, I'd be torn. A little more talent won't get the marketing gurus to greenlight a book (is she telegenic?), but a whole lot more in the looks department might. One publishing marketing exec I know said that if an author is a knockout looks-wise, that almost negates the need for "platform." Go figure.

Anonymous said...

I think it's not necessarily that you have to be attractive to get published. It's just that in some cases it works in your favor. Part of the publishing biz is figuring out what works in your favor, and using it. You don't need to lament that other people have advantages that you don't have. If you honestly have no special advantage, then the only thing to do is to write really really well.

There's always a story behind a story, and that's why the New Yorker was selecting "debut fiction." They wanted quality short stories, but they also wanted quality author stories--authors who could present themselves as exciting young urbanites. If you can sell that story about yourself, then it works in your favor. If there's another story about yourself that you can sell--if you were born in Afghanistan, or were raised by your mother's psychiatrist, or if you're the child of someone famous--then let it work in your favor. If not, write really well.

Anonymous said...

If looks sell, why don't publishing houses just hire models to pose as authors? Then they'd be assured of sales. And writers could go right on being fat, or bald or quaintly ordinary. I've always found authors pix to be incidental, unless, like Mary H. Clark, they happen to be flashing a paperweight sized emerald. That certainly grabs my attention. Perhaps plain Joes and Janes could pose next to an article or person of singular beauty, thereby providing a much needed distraction from the author's mediocre physical features.
As for those cleft pallets - it usually takes me about 8 minutes to recover - a warning sign would be greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...

It's cleft PALATES, peoples. Pallets are those wooden platforms they use for forklifting large boxes of remaindered books around.

Anonymous said...

The question is this: at what point do we admit that we are not in the literary world of the Moderns but in a pop culture world where the stars just happen to know the difference between "who" and "whom"?

Most of them, anyway.