Does it make me shallow if I admit that I almost always look for the author photo when I pick up a new book? Not that I think it can necessarily tell you much about the writer -- often it just tells you how the publisher wants to market the book. Still. I'm usually curious about the author's age, for one thing. I'm better disposed toward a book by an author my age or older, or one who displays a bit of eccentricity. I dislike pets in pictures, though this is probably ungenerous. I'm deeply disappointed if there's no picture at all.
One great picture is Jane Smiley's on the flap of Moo. It's a flash picture taken in what is probably Smiley's kitchen, and she's grinning and wearing a pair of huge glasses. The anti-glam shot!
Men should not wear tight white tee-shirts in their author photos. It makes them look like they're trying too hard not to be effete. Writing is effete! Get used to it!
My first author picture was taken by my husband in the woods behind my parents' house. It was ten degrees and windy, and I was five months pregnant. Not surprisingly, I look simultaneously puffy and rigid. They got Marion Ettlinger to take another one, for the paperback. She is a marvelous person and an incredible photographer but unfortunately I remember little of the experience because she had to feed me about 18 glasses of wine in order to get me to relax enough. I do remember asking her why she chose to photograph writers, of all people. And she said, It's easy to make actors and models look good. But writers are a challenge!
Haha! True enough! I brought the poor lady a paper sack full of wrinkled thrift shop dresses that smelled like cat pee, and until that day had never plucked a single eyebrow hair in my life.
Anyway. Maybe that's the appeal of author pictures: they're of people who are a challenge to photograph. I am in fact deeply suspicious of writers who are too good looking. I can't help but think the book can't possibly be any good. And if it is, No fair!
I would like to see more creativity in author photos. I'd like to see a picture of Philip Roth biting into a giant burger, for instance, or Claire Messud looking all red-faced and sweaty after a game of softball. Would that be cool, or weird?
* It has been brought to my attention that JRL once wore a white tee-shirt in his author pic. Sorry!