The other day I threw myself across the bed and began lamenting my writing career (or lack thereof). This is one of my hobbies–if not my favorite one, then at least the one at which I most excel. My husband (and fellow Millions contributor), Patrick, said, “Oh be quiet. You just want a two-book deal and Marion Ettlinger to take your author photo.”
The nerve! I might have thrown a pillow at his face, and went on with my self-loathing. You see, Patrick and I love to make fun of Ms. Ettlinger. She is probably the most famous photographer of authors, (she even has a book of them), and her images of Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and Joyce Carol Oates are burned in the cultural retina. Her photos are black and white, with an antiquated vibe, as if we’d only recently progressed beyond Daguerreotypes. Her subjects look distinguished, serious, old fashioned. Perhaps it’s that last quality–old fashioned–that rubs me the wrong way. Looking at these photos, I get the sense that the writers (even the young ones) are long gone, lost to an era when people gazed longingly out of train windows, mailed handwritten letters, or actually read books. I can’t imagine any of these writers alive, moving their mouths, checking their email, eating dinner. Maybe that’s the point: we want our authors to be Authors, unreachable and removed from the world of the reader. But as we head towards 2010, that’s more and more implausible. Newsflash: writers live in the world.
There are a few of Ettlinger’s photos I like. The full-body shots are better than the close-ups. Take the one, for instance, of David Foster Wallace; his plaid jacket, his downward gaze, and the sky above, create a lovely, even haunting, composition. Or the one, of James Ellroy: he’s gone whole hog with the photo’s anachronistic qualities, and it’s fun. Other full body shots, however, are a disaster. Hey, Melissa Bank, did you learn that pose in yoga? If I were to title this picture, I’d call it, “The Failed Seduction.” We’ve all been there, Ladies, haven’t we?
Some of the close-ups, particularly of the women, are just weird. I hate when authors cup their own head with their hands. What, will it fall off? Clearly, the writer is trying to appear thoughtful. Most of the time, though, they look like they’re starring in a pain killer ad. Ann Patchett and Amy Hempel’s pictures are the worst examples of this, although, to be fair, this is an epidemic in many author photos, not just ones by Ettlinger.
Browsing through these pictures got me thinking about other author photos. Many bad examples abound. There’s the “I love my dog!” variety, a la Dean Koontz and J.A. Jance–somehow Ellroy doesn’t fall into this category, perhaps because the dog in his photo looks hired, just another old-timey prop. There’s also the Trench Coat Club, which is usually reserved for mystery writers, but we see it here, with Adam Haslett. And there’s the “I’m just a harmless debut author” Club, wherein the writer strikes a more casual pose, and smiles like a well-intentioned, but potentially useless, babysitter. Aimee Phan is a good example of this, but she is just one of many. Lastly, there’s the “My spouse took this picture the night before it was due” Club. I won’t even bother with an example–just imagine your least-flattering Facebook picture, and you’ll understand.
Let me be clear: I am not damning these writers, or their work–far from it. It’s simply the photos I protest. But getting one’s picture taken for a book jacket must be a daunting task. How do you decide how to represent yourself to the reading public? You want to look serious, but not too serious! You want to look attractive, but not too attractive! You want to look young, but not…you catch my drift. It can’t be easy. I remember an author-friend telling me he wanted to forgo the photo altogether. I said he couldn’t, or else people would assume he was ghastly. And that’s true. Only Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger can pull off real anonymity.
I suppose that if Marion Ettlinger ever calls me, I’ll do my hair, slap on some eyeshadow, and ready for my close-up. Perhaps Patrick is correct: it is my most embarrassing fantasy.
I’m pleased to announce that Mark Batty Publisher, a New York-based art & design press, will be publishing my first book this spring. Modeled on fin-de-siecle scientific manuals, A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella presents the story of two families in 63 alphabetized entries: Adolescence, Boredom, Commitment… A lavish, full-color plate will illustrate each entry.The book itself, in the tradition of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch and of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, encourages collaborative reading via a system of cross-references. But in discussing the illustrations, MBP and I decided we didn’t want the collaboration to end there. So this week, we’re launching www.afieldguide.com, an online resource that allows interested artists to contribute digital images to the Field Guide. My dream has always been to have 40-60 photographers represented in the book, each offering their own distinct take on contemporary life.Every image submitted via the “upload” page will be posted on the website, indexed and cross-referenced by the Field Guide‘s entry tags. They will remain there in perpetuity, along with contributors’ bios and website links – a kind of networked reference work. In March, we’ll select 63 images from contributors who’ve asked to be considered for the print edition, and those will become the images in the book. Each contributor will have a bio in the back of the book, and will receive a contributors’ copy.Writers who publish in literary magazines have long been used to the online submission process, but illustrating a book via internet collaboration is, I think, a relatively new thing. I’m excited to see how it works. If afieldguide.com succeeds, it seems to me, it might open some publishing doors for the explosion of online photographic activity: flickr, photoblogging, etc. And the book promises to be beautifully designed.The photographic element of the book will only be as strong as the submissions we receive. So I want to take this opportunity to encourage readers of The Millions to explore afieldguide.com, to contribute an image or two, and to spread the word, via email and blog, to artists who might be interested in participating. Cheers.
What happens when people with a lot of money want to get their hands on a book that they think will make them more money, but that book is out of print and hard to find? That book gets very expensive.A BusinessWeek article profiles Margin of Safety: Risk-Averse Value Investing Strategies for the Thoughtful Investor by hedge fund manager Seth Klarman. The book was largely ignored when it was first published in 1991, but it Klarman’s ideas have come back into vogue and suddenly everyone on Wall Street wants to read the book, but copies are almost impossible to come by. As a result, the cheapest copy of the book on Amazon (as of this writing) is going for $1750. Not a bad investment if you bought the book when it first came out. (via)
I’m pleased to report that Freebird Books & Goods, the terminal stop on our “Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Booksellers,” has reopened its doors. With its packed wooden shelves, comfortable chairs, creaky floors, selection of fine teas, and breathtaking view of Manhattan, Freebird has been my favorite used bookstore since I first moved in around the corner three years ago. I’m not alone in my enthusiasm; guest-blogging at The Elegant Variation earlier this year, Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End, wrote of “a palpable feeling that you’re in a place where books, no matter how old, are alive and well.”Premature nostalgia afflicted me and many of my neighbors when we heard that owners Rachel London and Samantha Citrin were moving on to other endeavors. But it turns out that Freebird is in good hands. New owner Peter Miller is a bibliophile and all-around nice guy. He’s dedicated to building on the traditions of the store, while introducing new amenities to draw in new customers.One such innovation is the Freebird blog, where Mr. Miller’s been posting images of (and commentary on) the wonderful oddities he’s come across in his journey through the stacks. Lively events and a renewed liquor license (coming soon, I’m told), should further burnish the store’s reputation. As Mr. Ferris put it, “It’s the kind of place that reminds you why you read.” So if you’re in New York this holiday season, hop the F train to Bergen and make your way down to the waterfront…and be reminded!
Amazon is teaming with Penguin Classics to do a book club that will be hosted on a new blog at the site. The club will read books from the vast Penguin Classics catalog. Two cool things about this: 1. Penguin found the host of the book club, Kathryn Gursky, from a review she wrote of The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection — yes, she actually owns it — and 2. she picked a fairly obscure book, Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, rather than an obvious Oprah-style pick. (via)