Occupy Author Photo: On Elena Ferrante, Privacy, and Women Writers

October 6, 2016 | 2 books mentioned 16 7 min read


Reader looke,
Not on his Picture, but his Book
— Ben Jonson

When I was in my 20s, I used to spend hours at the Strand Bookstore in New York, obsessively gazing at book jacket photos of authors. I was trying to discern something — A key to genius? Or the mere fact that this lucky person, in this photo, had managed to get a book out into the world?

The variations were endless: Here was a classic black-and-white, chin resting on fist. Here was a playful one, slightly off-center. Sexy duck face for a middle-grade children’s book…okay. Or, how about this one, gorgeous photo, but one that looked completely different — like witness protection plan different — from the author I saw as I sat in the audience at a crowded Barnes & Noble. Or this one: instead of confined to the inner flap, her face on the entire back of the book, where the blurbs would normally be. Was this good? Did this mean the press thought she was such a great writer they wanted everyone to know her? Or, was it like using a pretty face to sell toothpaste?

Fast forward a few years on, and I’m finally published. My husband is in grad school, but before that, he’d worked at the venerated publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Knowing my obsession, he would often point out the different FSG authors’ pictures, noting how the press often signaled the importance of a book by commissioning one of the well-known author photographers, most famously, Marion Ettlinger, whose black-and-whites portraits are instantly recognizable by the unsmiling, dramatic poses of her subjects, the marmoreal lighting. These could run thousands of dollars for a single image.

My first novel came out with Beacon Press, an independent press that published both poet Mary Oliver and the Pentagon Papers; it’s owned by the Unitarian Church — hardly to be faulted for not shelling out big bucks for an author photo. I was lucky enough to use a lovely black-and-white portrait done at MacDowell, an artist’s colony. Earlier in my career, when I’d published young adult and middle grade fiction with Houghton Mifflin, my husband took the photos: we’d spent a day running goofily around New York City, occasionally imitating “serious author” poses and cracking up. The ones I submitted had me grinning, in jeans and sneakers sitting by the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

But even though both my novel and children’s books came out before social media, I received creepy messages via email and AOL about how “nice” I looked. “You look like a model.” I don’t look like a model. I am, however, smiling warmly and authentically at my husband and at Joanna Eldredge Morrissey, the MacDowell photographer. A majority of these creeps seemed to be Asian fetishists, and were persistent as barnacles — one guy stuck with it into the social media age, posting on my Facebook author page how we must meet — I don’t know if he realizes he’s in love with a decade-old photo. Funny, yes, but unnerving, especially when the invitations for coffee appear. Sometimes I don’t post events because of them.

But after being out of the publishing game for more than a decade, it’s author photo time! But I have come to wonder if, perhaps, for women, author photos are too often a lose-lose situation.

Women are judged — very often wrongly — because of their looks. There is no more obvious evidence of how women’s looks are “consumed” and “read” by the public than the most recent presidential debate.  Donald Trump galumps onto the stage in an ill-fitting suit, hair (if it is, indeed human hair) afrizz, his amorphous horse-fish hybrid face like a genetic engineering experiment gone awry. Hillary Clinton shows up in polished hair and makeup, understated age-appropriate business attire, probably a media consultant’s pop of color — but it’s her appearance that becomes the Rorschach blot for an overheated electorate: She smiled too much! She smiled too little! Did she look healthy, sick, or overprepared? Was she going to cough, pundits wondered, breathlessly, while the audience could barely hear Trump through his odd and unsightly sniffling.

It’s as if we already give any American (white) man the benefit of the doubt in terms of fitting into any narrative, especially one of heroism or competence, but a woman who breaks through always has to be stopped, something must be wrong.

Women authors, genius aside, must make sure they are not too old, or too young. Not too serious, but also serious enough. They have to be attractive, but not too attractive; for some reason in men it’s dreamy but in women it’s suspicious.  Take the example of poet Sarah Howe, winning the U.K.’s top poetry prize, the T.S. Eliot, but also nabbing the all-around medal for a trifecta of misogyny, racism, and ageism: “too young, beautiful — and Chinese“–a bunch of male “critics” (I’m only calling them critics, in that they  criticize) seemed to feel someone who looked like that somehow didn’t deserve such a storied prize, it had to be rigged! Forget the quality of her work, let’s merely assume there must have been “extra-poetic reasons” for the award, such as her being “presentable” (“You look like a model!”).

coverAuthor photos matter for men, too, but often these are calculated statements, gimmicks to gin up publicity — the sloe-eyed Truman Capote-as-odalisque portrait was a publicist’s dream. Men get to define what being an author is, women have to try conform to an abstraction that sometimes doesn’t even include them: when Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer for her wildly inventive A Visit From the Goon Squad, the Los Angeles Times ran the picture they thought best represented the genius novelist: a picture of Jonathan Franzen.

In this hyper-exposed age, as authors we’re told repeatedly we need a platform, a brand, some way to distinguish us from the swarming thousands of other authors being published each month. But this presenting can get in the way of the solitude that’s needed for creation. I’m a creature of the Internet (hence you are reading this), but I’ve admired Elena Ferrante, the pseudonym of the Italian novelist who wrote the beloved series of Neapolitan novels. She does nary a book festival, a signing. She’s stated she needs anonymity and privacy to write; her books are the only public thing about her — and as book lovers, is there anything more we need?

We know how that turned out. Some reporter tracked her down and wrote all about her personal life because he (yes, a he) decided he was somehow entitled to it. And The New York Review of Books (!) decided to publish his findings (a piece I have not read, as I am trying to — possibly futilely — keep the “Elena Ferrante” image running in my brain, pristine).

coverPrivacy-pro Thomas Pynchon indeed acknowledged the curiosity readers have about authors in his introduction to his 1984 collection, Slow Learner,

Somewhere I had come up with the notion that one’s personal life had nothing to do with fiction, when the truth, as everyone knows, is nearly the direct opposite.

But he’s been more or less successful staying a mystery. True, there was a 1996 article in New York Magazine, “Meet Your Neighbor, Thomas Pynchon,” that tracked down his supposed address in Manhattan, but what stood out to me in the article was not the exposure but its opposite: how much his putative neighbors were united in the protecting of his privacy, which has been left more or less unmolested for 40-plus years, so much that he was portrayed in an episode of The Simpsons with a bag over his head.

coverYet for Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend made her a worldwide sensation in 2012. I.e., she enjoyed her anonymity for four, not 40 years before a journalist decided to forcibly rip away her veil of privacy in a way that feels assaultive. Nobody feels Thomas Pynchon owes his public. But Ferrante, how dare she try to keep anything from an inquiring mind!

One shudders imagining the secret videos and the doxxing that would occur if Emily Dickinson were living today.

Back to author photos. Because I myself enjoying peeking at author photos, I felt it right to update mine for my forthcoming novel.  I contacted several photographers, went with a woman who specializes in musicians’ headshots, and, because musicians must always be broke, was pleased by her reasonable rates and that she would give me the images to all the photos she took.

But, even as I had the photos done in a chilly loft in Chelsea, knowing I was posing for pictures, I didn’t feel like I looked like me. I don’t wear makeup, that was part of the problem. But it went beyond that. Makeuppy me didn’t look like the me who wrote the book. I also didn’t want my spouse to take a picture — I didn’t want the self I save for my friends and family out there for public consumption. After what happened to Elena Ferrante, I feel that more than ever. I needed a buffer, a filter, a conception of an author that would be a stand-in for me.

coverIndeed, trying to find a platonic ideal of author photo made me recall my friend Monique Truong’s portrait for her first novel, The Book of Salt. I know what my friend looks like. But her Marion Ettlinger portrait somehow embodied the novel in an artful, ineffable way. When I asked her about the process, she said, indeed, what was funny was that the photo — the one I liked so much — was not the one she liked the best. Her editor chose it, which made her realize, in retrospect, “An author photo is a marketing tool, like the cover of your book. In that way, there’s necessarily a disconnect between it and you.”

Ben Harnett, my friend on Twitter, has an ongoing art-project where he creates watercolors of Twitter avatars, many of them writers. I was curious if that would work.  It took a while — he has a long waiting list. I loved it, but still felt it was a little too me, i.e., the private me.

coverThen I did a reading that was attended by author-artist Kate Gavino, whose tumblr, “Last Night’s Reading” (and book of the same name) showcases her unique talent of making a quick, almost crayon-y sketch of the author during a reading, and pulling out an interesting quote. She’s profiled everyone from Amy Bloom to Zadie Smith. I was excited to appear there, too, and after first admiring the quote she picked — “I write slowly because I have to fail in every single way possible before I get it right” — I kept looking at the picture. I’m not smiling or frowning but something in-between — it seems just right.

I’ve started using it as my “official” author photo, and the responses I’ve gotten have ranged from “Can you send something a little less weird?” to “I love it!” to quiet acceptance. To me, it’s the perfect image, one that includes a very simplified sketch of a necklace made of coconut shell, purchased in Key West when I was there finishing my novel. I didn’t know the artist was going to be there that night, that she caught the necklace, and my beloved glasses (another story), made it perfect, landed it somewhere between a Ben Jonsonish no-photo and wearing a sandwich board with my face on it.

Occupy author photo!

Image Credit: Flickr/Christopher Dombres.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, Slate, Salon, Guernica, Poets & Writers, and The Guardian. Her novel, The Evening Hero, is forthcoming with Simon & Schuster (May 2022). She teaches fiction at Columbia and shares a hometown with Bob Dylan.


  1. Million Little Pieces author got the press witch hunt when it turned out his memoir was mostly fictitious. He got a televised scolding from Oprah. (But be sold millions of copies. Still, he probably cried every moment that he wasn’t looking at his bank statements.)

    Ferrante published a memoir in Italy claiming she was a seamstress’s daughter when in fact she had a more middle class upbringing. So she did the same thing as Frey, tried to sell her sob story to the unsuspecting public when really she was selling a pack of lies.

    Also Ferrante did use the press for publicity. Pynchon never did. And Pynchon used his own name and has never lied about his rather patrician background. He isn’t a recluse, he just realizes you don’t have to talk to the press if you don’t want to.

  2. @rob

    “So she did the same thing as Frey, tried to sell her sob story to the unsuspecting public when really she was selling a pack of lies.”

    Where Frey was worse was this: his book was only “interesting” at all if the story it told actually happened. Because the writing itself stunk more than fresh catshit in a wet bag on a radiator.

  3. As Rob points out there is no real basis for comparison between Pynchon and Ferrante.

    Pynchon publishes under his real name and reportedly lives a fairly ordinary life in New York. He isn’t in hiding or a recluse he simply doesn’t talk to the press or do public appearances.

    Ferrante gave several interviews in which stated she grew up in Naples and her family had a low socio-economic background. If she was so concerned with her privacy she shouldn’t have put false information in the public domain which could later be refuted.

  4. Originally I was angry about the Ferrante outing but now… all these self-similar outrage pieces (“this only happens because she’s a woman!”) are grating, and it turns out, wrong. The original journalist was correct to say that her:

    a) lying to the public about her background with a fake autobiography that would be shelved in the nonfiction section
    b) giving numerous interviews in which she lied about her background

    do give grounds for exposure. If she hadn’t done those two things I’d be outraged, but actually, she deserved it.

    Oh, and as for the article… as usual, rife with the assumptions of the present.
    “One shudders imagining the secret videos and the doxxing that would occur if Emily Dickinson were living today.”
    … except for the fact that she published essentially nothing in her own life and was completely unknown.

  5. This article reads as though it was ready to run before the Ferrante “scandal” broke and the editor decided to shoehorn in the fashionable Ferrante outrage that every literary site is trafficking in. It really has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

    I shouldn’t be surprised at the righteous outrage re: Ferrante, but here we are. Immediately the issue is couched as sexism. This is the tactic of a person who wants to be right rather than to actually critically-think their way through an issue. Because then you can dismiss any dissenting opinion as pro-sexism and obviously sexism is a bad thing so anyone who is pro-bad things is a bad person and their opinion must be ignored.

    The journo who broke this could very well have been motivated by a sexist desired to “put a woman in her place”. I don’t know – nobody does except the journo. But let’s just SAY for the sake of intellectual discourse that sexism had nothing to do with it.

    What are we left with?

    1. An author’s right to privacy. Interesting, nuanced discussion. Like it or not, authors are public figures – we don’t demand that movie stars or pop stars have absolute privacy. Are writers – who derive part of their income from the anonymous consumers who buy their work – any different? Jezebel can come to Ferrante’s side, but weren’t we all eulogizing the death of free speech with the demise of Gawker for publishing a private sex tape?
    2. Ferrante’s definition of “privacy”. Most writers can sympathize with the need for privacy. However, when you give interviews to the Paris Review, NYT, New Yorker – how does that fit within your plea for privacy? When you are trying to sell a memoir based on a persona you’ve made up – does the buying public have no right to know if what they are buying is true or not? If not, what does that say about the JT Leroy and James Frey scandals? Which scandal is more “real”?
    3. Journalistic ethics. Did the journo break any laws in his research? Was this all public information? If so, are we suggesting that journalists should refrain from disseminating public information because the subject doesn’t want them to? How would this apply to business people or politicians who may actually have something to hide? And why did the NYRB publish this? Simply for the clicks?
    4. Why do we care? For all the people screaming about this, why do YOU care if other people care? In other words, all that matters is the writing. Everyone seems to agree on this. So if it shouldn’t matter what her name isn’t, then it shouldn’t matter what her name is, right? Just read the books. By publishing all these outrage people, what these literary folks are really saying is that name, author photos, author personality, etc – all these things DO matter. Is this a result of social media – we are much closer to writers than ever before? Is this a result of MFA/NYC culture where the literary culture is small and close-knit so that this sort of thing feels personal to other writers? Is there some entitlement going on here?

    I don’t pretend to know these answers. I’m still working my way through them. Which, not to pat myself on the back, but it’s far more intellectual effort than n+1, LitHub, Millions, TLS et al have bothered to exert.

  6. This article doesn’t ring true to me at all. Writer of article obsesses over author photographs on books at The Strand? Weird hobby and hard to believe. I call bullshit. Then disdain and accuse of racism and sexism those who obsess over her photo? And throw in Pynchon to sound smart I guess. Re Ferrante, it is human nature to want to know the mystery. Hardly the crime of the century. And to assert that Trump has less of a hard time over appearance than Clinton? He is just as famous for his bizarre, okay let’s say “ugly”, appearance as he is famous for his sicko rhetoric. Eeeesh much ado about nothing. @toad, you are spot on, @steve Augustine, great simile, albeit gross!

  7. The Millions comment section has become a sour battleground for neoliberals and assorted malcontents.

    I’m outta here.

  8. Moe, actually, this comment thread is a marvel of dissonant worldviews coming together to indulge in a little collaborative critical thinking. “Battlegrounds” are always preferable to “Church Choirs” when it comes to the free and open debate of Ideas and Opinions, really. And long may such a multiplicity of worldviews and voices remain legal.

  9. It bears remembering that even though Aristotle copped his best blog material from Socrates, and that some of Horace’s tweets – in the most felicitous blending of utile and dulce imaginable – still get “RT’d” and “hearted” to this very day, that we’re still not all that sure who either of them were, or even if they were at all.

    There’s this concept associated with femininity in Europe (in Russian it’s known as “zagadka”, you can look up the Italian for it yourself) which rejoices in the secrets that a woman carries with her, as a part of herself. Neither the unwashed nor the ravenous males will ever get to know them. We just know we love her for them. It’s my opinion, but the “news” behind the nom de plume just made the world a little cruder.

    Perhaps we should just leave the lady alone. Like she (sort of) asked us to.

  10. @IL’ja!

    All Quantum-mechanical aspects of Lit and Philosophy aside, I question the utility of *gendering* the debate… I really don’t see that Ferrante was especially vulnerable to this kind of unmasking simply because she’s a woman, which appears to be the argument connecting this comment thread to the article.

    Living under the post-Heisenbergian conditions of Google Capitalism, we have to ask ourselves if Ferrante’s mask was a reasonable symptom of her intense need for privacy… or merely the familiar marketing ploy of making a middle class artist “sexier” by Serfing up his/her backstory. Well, we don’t have to ask ourselves *anything* but Google Capitalism’s addiction to scams, hoaxes, schemes, cons, plots, fakes, knock-offs, gaslights, false-flags, hype and outright Lies has got us all on edge. The virtual megatons of sheer Propaganda I wade through, every single day, sickens me. Because what it all represents, in the end, is contempt for my intelligence and my ultimate dignity as a participant in the Culture.

    I applauded James Frey’s unmasking because James Frey’s marketing-lie was a cynical ploy from an almost-undoubtedly-complicit Publisher, displaying total contempt for the audience/customer.

    If Stevie Wonder were unmasked as a guy who’s enjoyed 20/20 vision all along, would we feel defrauded? Probably. Should we? That’s the debate!

    PS The flip side of Chivalry is Suttee (to pick the most disturbing metaphor), remember.

  11. Am I the only one who doesn’t think Jonathan Franzen is a genius? I read one of his books. I hung on to the bitter end because I kept thinking I was missing something. I don’t think I was. I didn’t like any of the characters, which is fine – I like “House of Cards” but hate all the characters, but at least with “House of Cards,” I care what happens to them. I didn’t care at all about Jonathan’s characters – I didn’t even want them to get what was coming to them.

  12. @steven augustine

    “…or merely the familiar marketing ploy of making a middle class artist “sexier” by Serfing up his/her backstory.”

    This is such a great (and disturbing) line, and while I share your distaste for systemic coercion (hey, we brought down a President and got his house turned into a Corruption Museum), that would’ve taken an editor with some hellacious foresight to have come up with the lay-low-reclusive-author-we’ll-capitalize-on-it-later shtick, particularly since her books have been out there for a generation or better.

    Did she manipulate her readers? I don’t even want to touch an author who doesn’t at least try. Will it affect her devotees? Rhetorical. And, related if tangential: has the black hole that is the silly “appropriation” debate sucked the historical understanding of the purpose of fiction clean off the space/time continuum? Ibid. Will it drive another sales spike? Google Capitalism. Is it cynical? Erm. Sexist? You know what, probably it was. Why? If I have to spell this out I may put my Millions posting privileges in jeopardy. Fine, because using “she asked for it” is beneath us, primarily because we are STILL talking about a fiction writer. A person we pay to lie to us. Until we stumble upon the fact that she’s actually been doing it. Lying. She had it coming? What did Clint say? “We all got it comin’, kid.” So, sexist in the abstract? No. But in the particular? Why not? Doesn’t make the quest of the “investigative journalist” who got ‘er done any less quixotic. Or meaningful.

    Did she really “promote” her plebeian roots (wow! talk about your historically appropriate adjectives)? I must have missed it. Or maybe I’m the only person in earth’s 6,000-year history who never cared enough to read Stephen King’s 30-page prefaces to each damn book on ‘why I wrote THIS book’. I wanted the stories. And, yeah, James Frey is a knob. He’s had his public shunning. But Elena Ferrante? Next thing you know they’ll start telling us that Lemony Snicket isn’t who he claims to be either.

    Finally, I’m not sure I appreciate the cryptic thrust (or the karmic payback) behind using Stevie Wonder as a metaphor in an Elena Ferrante dust-up. Just call me superstitious…daaaaah, dah dah dah di dah…

  13. il’ja!

    ” that would’ve taken an editor with some hellacious foresight to have come up with the lay-low-reclusive-author-we’ll-capitalize-on-it-later shtick, particularly since her books have been out there for a generation or better.”

    Well, they wouldn’t have been marketing the recluse, per se, they would have been marketing a version of the authoress more quaintly compelling than the half-German (you know how the rest of Europe views Germans) reality. The “recluse” bit is only necessary if you’d rather preserve the illusion for 20 years.

    In fact, it’s about time for me to do an “autobiography”… but, to do it right, I’ll need to make my father retroactively A) absent B) a crack addict and my mother A) not above turning tricks to put Twinkies on the table while B) hiding a devastating family secret I’ll need to come up with before I shop the manuscript to agents! After which I will become a recluse in order to preserve the illusion that I’m A) Gay and B) in prison for killing the (white) man who “sold” us those Twinkies.

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