About the Author

October 28, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 29 3 min read

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.”

coverThe 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.

coverThere 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.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. I recently looked at an author’s photo and said “yikes!” because he looked so frightening. I’ll see if I can remember who it was and hunt it down.

  2. I was always jealous of the one of Patricia Cornwell, standing in a bomber jacket in front of an airplane, as if to say, “Look what MY books can buy!”

  3. The head-in-hand thing isn’t just about being thoughtful, it implies the connection between the mind and the hand of the writer. Hey look, I’ve got a hand! My hand is in the picture! Writers write with hands!

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  5. How about the prop (other-than-dog) photo, perhaps more apparent in kid lit? Or the wacky-setting-because-I-am-deep photo? Sometimes both prop and wacky setting photos work super well. Other times – not so much.

    Maybe for my next author photo I will go to glamour shots!

  6. Ellroy’s dog wasn’t (just) a prop — he and Barko (the pit bull) posed together for photos several times.

  7. One of my favorite things about the PEN World Voices festival catalogue is the profusion of author photos in close context. (You can see them here: http://www.pen.org/page.php/prmID/1792 ). It’s always amusing to calculate the “hand” percentage…as in, this year 42% of authors are cupping their face with their hand.

  8. Thanks, Tom B., for the clarification. I guess it’s not necessarily the dog-in-photo that I protest, but the style and tone of the photo itself. I love all the other examples you guys have mentioned. Let’s see some more!

  9. I’m of the “my husband took my photograph on my rooftop the day before it was due” camp, myself. Eventually I’ll get a new picture done, but professional photographers are so damned expensive.

  10. Emily,
    Your picture is great, so you don’t need a new one. The worst your picture could be accused of saying is “I live in New York,” but I mean, don’t all the authors?

  11. Chabon and Boyle should get their own special category, of the one-disturbing-tendril-of-hair-in-the-face-to-denote-eccentricity variety.

    And, Dan Brown, no holding of your own book allowed! Or else maybe that’s a whole separate category we hadn’t thought of? Authors everywhere holding copies of The DaVinci Code.

  12. Well it’s nearly a decade old and buried in the ML archives, so don’t feel bad for missing it. Yours is excellent too.

  13. Great stuff. I feel though that there’s some unaddressed territory here – the I-stopped-having-new-author-photos-taken-when-I-turned-forty-two-even-though-now-I-am-sixty-seven category.

    I am considering entering this phase myself right about now…

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