Book-Hot-Or-Not: More On The Sexual Politics Of Author Photos


Gawker readers will remember “book hot” author Marisha Pessl — according to a a recent VQR piece, even reviewers are now playing book-hot-or-not.

By “reviewers,” I mean Janet Maslin, who for some ungodly reason went to author Miriam Gershow’s page as part of her review of Gershow’s book, The Local News. The book revolves around an awkward high school girl named Lydia, and Maslin writes,

Ms. Gershow has been a teacher at the University of Oregon, where some students’ online ratings of her sound like a continuation of Lydia’s high school nightmare. Being regarded as neither popular nor hot seems to be territory that Ms. Gershow knows well, maybe in the classroom and certainly on the pages of her unusually credible and precise novel. But these real-life disadvantages become assets in giving “The Local News” its strong verisimilitude, even in its graceless touches.

“Shockingly,” comments Jacob Silverman of the Virginia Quarterly Review, “Maslin is saying that because college students’ online ratings of Gershow judge her unpopular and ‘not hot,’ that information is somehow both relevant for a book review and credible.” He rightly calls this “a lazy and shallow tactic for a reviewer to take,” but the truth is that Maslin’s lame foray into web-stalking is only a sillier version of the giant game of hot-or-not that female authors are constantly embroiled in.

Silverman says that the publishers of 28-year-old Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics “surely” regarded her looks as “incidental” and that the “flurry of articles and blog posts” about her looks “added to a debate that didn’t have to be.” Unfortunately both these claims make the publishing world sound purer than it actually is. Special Topics is an interesting book, and it certainly didn’t need a sexy girl on the flap to do well. But that doesn’t mean that Penguin — or Pessl herself — didn’t consider the possible benefits of a sultry author photo.

From Lucinda Rosenfeld (where are her clothes?) to Mary Gaitskill (just scroll a little bit on her agent’s website and then tell me why she’s the only author photographed on her bed) to, notoriously, Emily Gould (who, in a kind of book-hot ouroboros, actually wrote about Marisha Pessl for Gawker), female authors have either crafted sexy images for themselves or had sexy images thrust upon them. Thing is, it’s often hard to tell which.

Anna says if she ever wrote and published a piece of literary fiction, she thinks she’d “demand a straight-on headshot — no pouty lips or bare shoulder shots.” In my non-Jezebel life I’m a fiction writer, so I’ve thought about this, and I’m not sure I’d be so strong. Starting with the most base of impulses, I was a nerdy, bookish girl in high school, and former nerdy bookish girls are often excited — even in spite of ourselves — when somebody with a camera finally considers us attractive. Lots of female writers, though not all, are former nerdy bookish girls. Getting slightly less pathetic, it’s clear that women’s achievements are linked more closely to their looks than men’s are. If you publish a book, and you’re a woman, odds are pretty decent that some people are going to talk about your author photo. And it’s hard not to care what those people are saying.

Unfortunately there’s no real way to win here. If you’re “not hot,” you get called out about it — and by another woman, in Gershow’s case. If you’re too hot, people don’t take you seriously, and they think you got published because of your looks. If I ever sell my novel, I might just put a bag over my head.

Hot-or-Not Author Syndrome [Virginia Quarterly Review]

Related: With A Disappearance, Life Turns Upside Down [New York Times]
The Times Magazine Dapples Sunlight On Its Memoirist [NY Observer]
With Marisha Pessl, You Can’t Judge A Book By The Photo On The Cover [New York Times]
Another Pretty Face Of A Generation [Salon]

Industry Standard: How Hot Are You?

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