Monday, October 24, 2005

The Author Photo

Should we get rid of author photos on bookcovers?

Bookslut links to Frances Wilson's piece in the Guardian.

The author photo on the inside cover of a book is a fairly recent innovation and clearly reflects the celebrityisation of contemporary culture. Author as commodity to be sold. (The same has happened with musicians on the cover of classical music CD's over the years ...)

Male authors, says the article, have it easier as "like dentists" they:
... should be both trusted and feared. Fanning out a handful of blue Pelican popular philosophy books from the 1950s, one encounters on the back a series of passport-sized pictures showing granite-faced, set-jawed gentlemen in late middle age, accessorised with a pipe, a thistly tweed jacket or patent leather hair. Their appeal to the reader could not be described as obviously erotic but we know we are in the hands of a sturdy thinker. A diluted version of the same approach can often be found in the author photos of contemporary male novelists, although the pipe has become metaphorical and moleskin is the new tweed. The face is crevassed with shadow, propped up on a fist, the brow furled.
The woman writer on the other hand, "must be able to do more than spin a sentence together". She notes that Zadie Smith's inside-flap picture:
... was by far the largest image among this year's Booker-shortlisted novels and the only one in colour. It is hard to see how it could not impact on readers' impressions of her work. The fabulously groomed mane and decidedly unfurled brow of the "highly promotable" woman writer, of which Smith's image is an iconic example, is not only guaranteed to stir up a tangy mixture of aspiration, desire and envy; it is also a distraction from the compact between reader and writer.
Now I actually approve wholeheartedly of the author photo on the bookcover ... it's fun to try to work out what kind of people the writers are and whether you think you'd actually warm to them in real life. But literature ain't a beauty contest!

I love the craggier faces of older women writers (Proulx, Bainbridge, Lessing, Rubens) who've clearly lived life to the full and arrived in their own skin without apologies. Truly the most transforming cosmetic a woman can put on her face is intelligence!

Wilson talks about how "wincingly awkward" it was posing for her own author photo. (Her latest book is The Courtesan's Revenge.)

I sort of had a taste of the same the other day with Marisa chasing me round Silverfish with a camera for a profile picture for chrome. The whole process simultaneously flattering and terrifying. In the end I decided that the best pose was one with a book covering my face. If it turns out well I'll show it to you another day.

(Liked the Guardian's rather irreverent approach to the author photo in their earlier competition!)


Lydia Teh said...

Sharon, here's an interesting blog on this same topic :

I've been told author's pix on the cover like mine is quite passe. Ah, well.

bibliobibuli said...

Thanks for the link Lydia. Agent 007 is an agent of the literary sort - and therefore her advice about author photos should be listened to! She gives a good list of guidelines - and the only one I'd add to that is - if all else fails find someone who can digitally alter your image!

I like your picture on the front of your book Lydia ... and since you are talking about your life, it is approriate. Besides lah, you so chun!

Lydia Teh said...

Thanks Sharon! First time I've been described as chun. Now I'm going to float on air the whole day, until I look in the mirror and see the unmade-up person with dishevelled hair.