Thursday, February 4, 2010

Are you sexy enough for literature?

poster from Cafe Press

Yesterday's Dystel & Goderich blog post talked about the phenomenon of authors as rock stars. The blog linked to an article about the rock-star-ness of Joshua Ferris, and ended with the question, "Does an author’s looks or celebrity status influence your decision to buy his/her books?"

I was all set to scoff. Choosing a novel because the author is hot? That's probably the last thing I think about, running way behind the pack of more important reasons like: who recommended it, if I liked the author's work before, the back-of-book plot summary, cover art, availability in my format of choice (trade paperback), publishing house, and typography. Sure, we joke about it, but no one who actually cares about literature would care about an author's looks, because writing ability and appearance are wholly and utterly unrelated.

Yup, I was all set to comment, and then I remembered my post on John Irving. Into which I inserted no fewer than six author photos. Damn. What can I say, I have a total reader-crush on the guy.

Okay, I stand by my belief that I would NEVER EVER buy a book just because the author was good-looking. I mean, jeez, that's what the internet is for: free photos of people we like to look at. But there's definitely something enjoyable about reading a work of genius and then discovering that the person who wrote those words is visually appealing as well. Whether it's an expression like they've got a secret (Irving), a certain scruffy-headed charm (Neil Gaiman), killer eyes (Zadie Smith), or a wicked smile (David and Amy Sedaris), it IS nice if we like to look at those who we like to read.

But is there too much pressure for writers to have an intriguing (sexy) image? Take a quick look at this blog post: Can we stop being sexy? Just for five minutes? to compare one author's book jacket photo with a more casual photo. I personally think that the intent behind the "sexy" photo may have been to make the author look more intense and thoughtful (writerly) rather than give her a come-hither expression... after all, the title of her book was Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and I imagine that the marketing people decided that a certain formal glamour fit the book's packaging best. But the result was more or less the same: the photo made her look ethereal, and like a deep thinker, AND sexy. (But can we blame the author at all? Who wouldn't want to look amazing in a publicity shot?)

So. Any writers you love to look at? Any thoughts on the presentation of authors as a visual commodity? And, what's going on YOUR book jacket?


  1. To be honest, I've never really thought about it until now, but I'd have to say that I'd rather the author looked professional in his/her picture. If those who pick out the picture think that also means sexy, I can see why that would have some appeal as well. To be honest, who wouldn't want to look glamorous? One certainly wouldn't want a picture of herself with a bad hair day (even if that is how she looked most of the time) being displayed on her book for all to see. That would just be embarrassing!

  2. Sexy? Ugh. I just thought we were trying to show our best selves (you know, the one not in the fuzzy bathrobe).

  3. Huh. Interesting post, good lady. I've never much thought about the attractiveness of authors, though a pretty picture on the dust jacket's nice and all that. I mean, Stephenie Meyer's cute and all, but it means nothing to me when it comes to evaluating her work.

    That said, on my dust jacket, I'm sure my publicists will want me to strip to the waist, oil up, and sit down in front of the laptop. Which is okay, because that's part of my daily writing routine anyway...

  4. John Irving beat you to it, Simon.

    Okay, technically he wasn't in front of his typewriter. Apparently he needs the cover of a muscle t-shirt for actual writing...

  5. The author picture from your link didn't strike me as "come hither and all bedroom eyes."

    I do think, though, that attractiveness (not necessarily sexiness) has way more weight in society than I like it to be. The DH and I were just talking about it the other day about how attractive a certain physicist from Harvard looks when she was talking about something highly intellectual and very serious on TV. We were wondering if she'd still have been on TV--and worse, at Harvard--had she had buck teeth and stringy hair and a wide mouth that shows too much gum and a stocky manly body, and spits when she talks.

    I'd like to think she is where she is because of brains and guts and okay, some luck in timing and people she knew, but I bet her looks didn't hurt.

    Yikes. Don't like the bad taste in my mouth, but unfortunately, looks matter a lot right now.

    Oh yes, and I will not buy a book just because the author is hot. (I may look at the jacket picture a little longer though.:))

  6. And the picture of young Irving: hot. The one in muscle shirt: uh, by the time you have to wear readers, maybe sleeves on a t-shirt would look better.

  7. As I'm reading this, I can't help wonder if appearance isn't more a factor for agents/publicity people choosing/pushing authors than it is for readers choosing books. I freely admit to not knowing much about the publishing industry (yet), but my limited experience suggests that the real blockbuster authors, as a rule, tend to be more attractive than run of the mill authors (a generalization yes, but I believe it's accurate).

    If we agree on that trend, then it makes since that there may be a "whole package" effect. The author writes extremely well, does the public engagements bit fine AND they look great. So when the publicity people are deciding who they'll push the hardest, it's one more check in the yes column for the good looking author that helps them become more popular--in addition to the traditional traits. By the time we buy the book, the fact that they look great is gravy. Does that make sense to anyone?

    Of course I'm just spit-balling here, and thinking out loud to boot. Feel free to point out where I've gone oh so dreadfully wrong if you want to. :D

  8. I can't think of a book I've ever bought based on what the author looked like and I don't think I would. A book jacket or any publicity should catch an author's better side, but sexy?

    I don't sit around looking at his picture and don't have a poster on the wall, but I like the way Cormac McCarthy looks -- ruggedly masculine, but with intensity and depth. He has an enigmatic look. His looks match his writing. Or Mark Twain -- the whimsical Southern gentleman with a satirical glimmer in his expression --- like his writing.

  9. The problem is, I've known a lot of authors who put this sexy photo of them on their book jacket and then you meet them in person and think they are liars. And since people count on writers to tell the truth, I don't know where that leaves us.

  10. Is it bad that ever since I got "the call" I've thought, "I need to start growing my hair out so it's cute for my author shots!" 'Cause yeah, I'm over my recent pixie cut...

    Sometimes an author picture will grab me though, but it's more like, "Hey, she looks like someone I want to be friends with!" And that's usually because the author has a big smile or is laughing in the picture. So yes, sometimes the photos make a difference for me.

    But am I only buying books by hot authors? I think my recent decision not to read Lauren Conrad's LA Candy series proves that's not true at all...

  11. Great post. I have to say I really don't slaver over author photos.

    Until I thought about it.

    There is a book I have, called "Good Bugs for your Garden" and it really is a bug book--a beautifully illustrated one--and the lady who wrote it has just a stunning author photo. And I remember thinking, "She's so pretty!" Did it get me to buy more of her stuff? No. But what it DID do is get me thinking about her as an author and person a bit. So maybe a hot author photo will get people interested in you and therefore look you up and be much more receptive to buying more.

    It's subtle.

  12. I went to a dinner party with The Husband, and the woman of the house was going on and on about some writer named, Vince Flynn, she said he "was hot", and said she looks at the picture of the author before even considering the purchase of any book? Huh?

    I was dumbfounded. I had never heard of such a thing. Now, I keep reading about this subject. Which, I might add, you have written about so eloquently.

    I too find John Irving appealing, even older! But I would have read his books if he wasn't so appealing. I can honestly say, I don't care if there's a picture of the author on the flap. I'm that strange.

    I looked up Vince Flynn at the bookstore, not my cup of tea. One woman's treasure is another woman's trash.

  13. I'd like my author photo to not be a photo at all, but a piece of artwork (like my icon, but hopefully executed with more skill.)

    I don't like the idea of strangers being able to recognize me easily, and a drawing or painting can be both true-to-life and give me one degree of separation. It can also be beautiful in a way that is separate from whether or not I'm beautiful.

    Plus, if the artwork omits my wrinkles, I can blame that on the artist rather than my vanity.

    As for what I think of authors as commodities, I regularly find myself surprised by the author photo at the end of the book. That person never looks like the human being I imagined would create what I just read.

    I react the same way to radio announcers; I form an image of them based on their voice, and it's never accurate.

    I'd almost rather never see these people. The clash between my brain's picture and reality is jarring, even when I rationally know there's no reason for me to be bothered by it, and I don't need to see the person to enjoy their work.

  14. I generally don't look at author photos. I never really thought about it, but now that you mention it, I think I'm going to maintain it as an official policy. I don't want any perception I have of the author (as created by the photo) to influence my view of the book.

    I hadn't thought of the book-jackets of any book I write, because that seems like tempting fate. But, I photograph really geeky looking, which probably wouldn't help sell books. Don't know what could be done to solve that though.

  15. I may post a photo of myself hugging a life size Spongebob Squarepants sculpture in Vegas, but that's because I'm just a goofy light hearted guy.

    I find it fascinating to read a book, THEN see what the author looks like. It's like seeing a radio personality for the first time. Your image is always off, but it's a fun thing, not a "If he/she isn't hot, I'm not buying their next book" thing.

  16. Well Stuart Neville is a brilliant author who could have been a rock star (he was a brilliant musician before he was a brilliant author). So he's ticked both your boxes.

    My own author jacket photo was an interesting experience. It was taken by a friend who's a for-real professional glamour photographer who normally does famous actors and the like. She used tricks like getting me to shake myself, sit on a very short chair and do muscle loosening exercises and stare into the distance between each shot. Apparently it makes you more relaxed so you look like yourself and not a tense bundle of nerves.

  17. Elizabeth, I'm with you. That Vince Flynn guy does NOTHING for me. (Related thought: I'm glad that Jonathan Franzen also does not appeal to me, because I adored The Corrections and think it was a work of genius, but have no urge to develop a full reader-crush on him and his Oprah-dissing ways.)

    Thanks for the insider info, Gary!

  18. Being 'sexy' isn't always the best thing. When Marisha Pessl's debut novel came out (Special Topics In Calamity Physics), many critiqued her for being too pretty, implying that her looks bought her a spot on the NY Times bestseller's list. Personally, she deserved it.

    So I think that sexyness is good for guy and gals in terms of selling books, but female writers sure seem to get a worse rep because of it.

    Anyhow, here's the link to the Pessl hubbub:

    Also, did I mention I'm a semi-attractive person? Why won't anyone buy my nonexistent book?

  19. ahem, completely just realized that you linked to an article all about Marisha Pessl. Well, I'm glad you like her!