Monday, April 27, 2009

Beauty and Talent

Is it really necessary to spend even a moment denying the connection between looks and talent? Apparently so, after this dumb article in the Sunday NYT. Making "snap judgments" based on appearance is perfectly natural, the author claims, because back when we were cave people, our very survival depended on our ability to rapidly put stuff into categories. What nonsense. What survival advantage is there in assuming a woman who doesn't pluck her eyebrows can't sing? The real purpose of the essay is to make us feel a little better about being shallow people who read the Sunday Styles section.

While I'm apparently the only person in the world not moved to tears by Susan Boyle (I mean, as happy as I am for her, is anyone really surprised that an unattractive person is actually talented? How often have we seen this cliche? It's always the froggy little guy in the college a capella group who steps up and wows everyone, or the zitty teen who's a piano whiz. Beautiful people don't need talent, because the world loves them anyway) and find the whole thing grossly manipulative, I'm fascinated by the story anyway. Most of the commentary on the phenomenon ignores the fact that this happened on a British show. The British have always loved underdogs, and as Americanized as their pop culture has become, the Susan Boyle episode has served to make them feel British again, i.e. better than Americans.

Which, okay, they are. When are we going to get our chubby, homely, 50ish woman on American Idol? Ha ha!

Anyway, it got me thinking about good-looking writers. Traditionally, writers have been a bad-looking bunch. Not only are the less physically gifted of us drawn to the bookish life, but that life -- indoors, surrounded by cigarettes, booze, and coffee -- has not done us any favors. Lately, however, you can be pretty sure that when you flip to the back flap of a new hardcover, you'll see a quite attractive person. Part of this is just the wondrous skills of photographers like Marion Ettlinger, who can make the frumpiest writer look acceptable (and who told me once that she photographs writers instead of, say, actors, because of the challenge). And these days, with ubiquitous orthodonture and good grooming, it's not hard to look okay. But it is no secret that editors ask agents what their writers look like. It is much easier to create a literary sensation if the writer is gorgeous.

It's all very depressing. I find it hard to accept that even readers are this superficial, that we won't buy a book written by an ugly person. Why is it, though? Why do so many people assume -- if they actually do -- that a beautiful author will create a beautiful work? Here's a theory: we interpret good looks as code for I want to please you. A pretty woman wants to please us, so her book will please us, too. She cares about our needs! An unattractive writer -- perhaps one who has committed the cardinal female sin of unplucked brows -- doesn't care what we think, so heck, who knows what we'll find in that book! Maybe something unpleasant.

13 comments:

Pete said...

I've already got enough working against me (ability, age, social connections, integrity) that, if readers do care about writer's physical appearance, I might as just quit writing right now.

Boyle performed on Britain's Got Talent which, assuming its template was carried over to its U.S. counterpart, has a much less restrictive contestant-age policy than American Idol, which I think has an age limit of something like 30. So, no, we'll never see a Boyle counterpart on American Idol. And note that both the Idol and Talent franchises are the diabolical work of the insidiously pervasive Simon Cowell, one of the most quietly manipulative media figures of our time. So of course the whole thing is grossly manipulative.

Jay Livingston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Livingston said...

Follow-up on what Pete said: I've even read conspiracy-minded bloggers who are sure that Cowell engineered the whole thing -- recruited Boyle, supervised her clothes and makeup, and then feigned his own reactions.

There's a lot of research on the halo effect of good looks. We think that prettier people are also smarter, nicer, etc. It seems unfair that jacket photos give them an advantage in book sales as well. But I must admit that when I see a picture of an author I've read, I like having the additional information ("Oh, so that's what he looked like").

KLR Literary said...

Agreed, Jay. It is nice to have the additional info when viewing a jacket photo. But it's still more fun to imagine the writer's visage in the same way that we envision the characters.

rmellis said...

Pete, I think your work counts most of all. And being especially good-looking is a help if your work is so-so, but being a frog won't hurt much if you're a genius. It just really chafes that it's part of the calculus at all...

Jay -- I'm sure the thing was at least partially set up, if not entirely. They must have told certain people to roll their eyes -- the camera couldn't have been that lucky.

I love looking at the author photo. If it's too glam, it biases me against the book: reverse discrimination!

Also, knowing the age of the author can give you a few hints about the book.

Zachary Cole said...

As I was reading this, I instantly thought of the "author photo" in The Funnies. That's one way around the problem!

jrlennon said...

I was very proud of that solution! RUben Bolling, the cartoonist, had never actually seen me...I sent him a description via email. It was pretty accurate, considering!

When my first book was coming out, I requested not to have an author photo. And my publisher more or less pretended I hadn't said it. Presumably it was the kind of request weird people made.

Hell, I don't even like book covers all that much. I always wanted one of those seventies covers with just my name and the title on it, and maybe a stripe. Like the Salinger paperbacks.

jon said...

I have no desire to go after creative writing programs, but I have noticed that there are a lot of older male writers who just happen to love the work of attractive young poets. At least in America, social and business networks are intertwined and in the arts anyway, driven totally by the entertainment industry, which is rooted in two values: maximum short term profit, sex sells.

Zachary Cole said...

JRL: I have been noticing more and more hardbacks being sold without dust jackets. I am a sucker for dust jackets, but I don't see why nearly every novel released has to be wrapped in mylar. Think of how much waste that amounts to per year!)

AC said...

I loved the Susan Boyle clip on youtube, just because she looks like every middle aged woman I remember from my childhood. You know, the ones who sang soloes in the church choir, and headed up committees, and generally got shit done. I was just tickled to see that aesthetic still in existence somewhere in the world and being recorded on video.

I saw Patti Smith do a reading at a Barnes and Noble in her old home town in NJ. Actually, she was supposed to do a reading, but she forgot her reading glasses so she just chatted with people and signed things. I had seen those photos of her taken by Robert Mapplethorpe in the 70s and I was prepared for severe b/w glamour. But in real life, she looked a lot like my mom, a scraggly unkempt middle aged hippy. And I liked her for the same reason I liked Susan Boyle. Plus she told me she liked my hat!

Zoe said...

That whole Susan Boyle thing was vomitous in the extreme. Everyone here knows that it's all a set up, it's only the media that are pretending it was real. What annoys me is that she isn't really all that good - now people are saying she's amazing because of the looks thing - it's a sort of reverse-reverse snobbery. That whole show is appalling and the judges should all be shot. Amanda Holden is a plasticised talentless freak and that idiot Morgan is a self-obsessed fuckwit. Cowell is the only one with talent and his talent is knowing what stupid people will spend money on.

Gosh! What a rant!

On the issue of writers' looks, I'm suspicious of them when they're real lookers. I prefer my writers to look brainy and/or lived in. Just as horribly shallow as the other way round, I know.

rmellis said...

Yeah, AC: I liked her too and wish the best for her -- none of my being annoyed is about her! It's about the bizarre reaction to her... as for Patti Smith:I always enjoy finding out people I admire are regular people...

Zoe: thank you for the British perspective!

Bluestalking said...

I think the author/looks connection perception is more stringent for female authors than male. Men can be scruffy, balding, really badly dressed or unattractive in other ways, but women had best be good looking and well-groomed (and preferably slim ...) or the publisher may potentially leave off her photo.

I love seeing what the author looks like. I always flip back to see if there's a photo. It doesn't have an impact on what I think of the book. I just like knowing if s/he looks intense, artsy, or like an everyday person with no affectations. Just curiosity, really, to try to get a sense of the person who wrote the book.