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!”).
Author 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).
Privacy-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.
Yet 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.
Indeed, 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.
Then 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.
Say “historical fiction,” and your listener’s eyes may glaze over, as you fight to re-seize attention. Younger readers or those with edgier tastes, especially, may associate authors of historical fiction with dotty academic types in tweed, or their narratives with conventional period dramas, the cinematic equivalent of which might be a Merchant Ivory production. So let me just say, with as much un-dotty enthusiasm as I can muster, that I am, like, way super excited about the histo-fi seminar I’m teaching this fall, “(Re)Imagining True Lives.”
More specifically, the reading list focuses on works of fiction that feature, either prominently or peripherally, real historical figures as characters:
American Woman by Susan Choi
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
Regeneration by Pat Barker
Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy
Stories from You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard
Stories by Roberto Bolaño, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Colm Tóibín
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
Written Lives by Javier Marías
Libra by Don Delillo
The Master by Colm Tóibín
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck
(Now, if this list doesn’t get your reading chops watering, then sure, maybe historical fiction just isn’t for you.)
What fascinates me as both reader and writer (and also as teacher and lifelong writing student) is the always dynamic tri-level experience of delving into these works and their like; one is always simultaneously aware of 1) the author’s particular knowledge of and relationship (intellectual, political, emotional) to the real-life material; 2) one’s own particular knowledge of and relationship to (or lack thereof) the material; and 3) one’s engagement/response to 1).
Where has the author stayed close to “facts,” and where has she taken liberties of imagination, supposition, projection? Does my experience of the novel grow more, or less, deep and interesting as I identify the fact-fiction seams? Personally, I would say more – which is to say that, as we see the way in which researched and imagined history braid together, the author himself ultimately becomes a compelling character in his own right. As the author decides what to imagine/suppose/project (and of course how), he reveals, inevitably, his own concerns, ideas, obsessions.
What is it about the German romantic poet Novalis’s rather banal, albeit eccentric, middle-class family and upbringing, and his courtship of the dull-witted 13 year-old Sophie von Kühn – years before he came into his full powers as poet and philosopher – that captivated Penelope Fitzgerald’s literary imagination? By what instinct or logic did both Susan Choi and Somerset Maugham take liberties in renaming their characters and revising their stories, while also rendering them clearly recognizable to the reader (as Paul Gauguin, and Patty Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura, respectively)? What do Bolaño and Le Guin mean by backgrounding primary figures like Borges and Cortazar, and the Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, while foregrounding peripheral, fictional protagonists (the novelist Sensini in the story of the same name, and the all-female exploration team in “Sur”) in their stories of literary greatness and extreme adventure? Similarly, how important in the scope of history are figures like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Freud – in Doctorow’s literary vision – relative to a minor ragtime musician (the fictional Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), the Vaudeville escape artist Harry Houdini, and an immigrant street artist (also fictional), given Morgan’s and Ford’s relatively peripheral (at the same time utterly fascinating) scenes in Ragtime? What do Walbert’s imagined depictions of suffragette Dorothy Trevor Townsend’s female descendants tell us about her “what if” thought process (i.e., what if your mother, grandmother, great grandmother starved herself to death for a cause?) and conceptions of emotional inheritance? In other words, in their particular, idiosyncratic manipulations of history and imagination, and through our careful study of the results, these authors show us glimpses of not only their characters’ but also their own inner moral landscapes.
How we read these works also reveals to us something about our own relationship to fact and fiction. To what degree am I aware of divergences from strict facts as I am reading? Do I give myself over to the whole of the created world and characters, or do I pause to ask myself, “Did this really happen?” and then click over to Google to fact-check? Or do I engage in this research afterwards? Or not at all? Why, or why not?
We read a memoir, a la James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and take it for true, only to learn that key elements have been fabricated, embellished. We are offended, insulted, maybe impressed, maybe not so surprised. But what of the converse? You are reading an absurd or incredible scene in a novel (the episode in Ragtime where J.P. Morgan sleeps solitary in the crypt of an Egyptian pyramid comes to mind), and then come to find it really happened. What is the effect, then? The other day I was walking in the park and saw, in a pond, a bronze sculpture of a turtle, nose in the air, perched on a rock. How quaint, I thought. Then, movement in the water: an actual turtle swimming, nosing up to the sculpture, trying to get its attention. Silly, dumb thing, I thought. Then, the sculpture’s eyes – black on white with blood-red outlines – suddenly flickered; the turtle stretched its neck even longer up toward the sun, then twisted to acknowledge its suitor-compadre. I stood there a few moments, smiling stupidly.
What was the nature of my delight? The translucent hologram of truth and falsity, real and fake, shifting and melding, captivates. In the hands of a skillful and mindful artist, the effect is unsettling and exciting: we start out on a smooth, hard path, but then find our feet sinking into warm sand, or slipping on ice, at times finding again stone-solid footing, only to slip or sink again. Where are we? Whose reality is this? History, the author’s inventiveness and fixations, our own projections and obsessions call out to us all at once. In historical fiction, studied closely, perhaps more so than with other sub-genres, this motional holographic magic comes into stark relief – not unlike the red flickering eyes of a turtle or, one hopes, the un-dotty aha moments of a seminar-class discussion. For good measure, maybe I’ll show up on the first day wearing gold lamé and skinny jeans.