I. A few years before finding a smattering of success as a writer I enrolled in a poetry class being taught by a local legend, Molly Fisk. For one of the assignments Molly asked us to write an egocentric poem; one that could be as farfetched or fantastical as we wished. “Dream big,” she’d said.
I wrote a fanciful poem describing how beautiful I would look on the dust jacket of my first book. I imagined my (not-yet-written) novel being so esteemed that my publisher would hire Marion Ettlinger, the famed book portraitist, to shoot me. Using strategic lighting and a makeup artist’s sleight of hand, the resulting photograph would capture my above-average intellect, and convey the depth of my soul much like it did for Jhumpa Lahiri:
Delusional poetry aside, I ended up having to supply the author photo for my first book. My friend Dave, who considered himself a pretty good nature photographer, volunteered to give it a whirl. I wore no makeup. He had no special lighting. I didn’t know whether I should look at the camera, or look away as if dreaming up my next brilliant story. We spent three hours in his backyard with me alternatively squatting, leaning, smiling, smirking, squirming, stretching, or gazing off into the distance. Dave gave it his all, but I was as unphotogenic as a newborn mole. Since Hyperion needed a picture pronto, I had no choice but to pick the least offensive one. I sent them a blurry shot of me hiding behind my dog:
They wrote back, requesting a picture that actually showed my face. I didn’t like any of my faces, but I’d run aground. I chose this one:
II. For Book Two I asked my friend Elisa to try her hand at generating a new and improved author photo. This time I wore lots of makeup and poofed my hair. The resulting images ranged from comically come-hither-ish to just plain homely. It was as if the camera had challenged my face to a duel and my face lost:
I next turned to my friend Tim, who swore up and down that his zillion-dollar high-tech camera could not take a bad picture. I tilted my head like I’d seen many other authors do, gently touched my cheek, and let him snap away. Again, pressed for time, I provided Hyperion with the best of a bad lot:
III. As for my memoir, I wanted the author photo to radiate how relatable, down to earth, fun, and sassy I was. After taking a few thousand selfies in various getups and hairdos, I defaulted to an old photograph of me straddling a chair in the bathroom of our house in Nevada City. And by old I mean that the picture on the back of my new book had actually been taken TWELVE years previous:
It wasn’t that I didn’t want prospective readers to view me as an old lady author. It was just that I literally could not take a decent picture.
IV. A few weeks ago the Brevity Blog published a blog essay of mine about the time I asked the actress Emma Thompson to blurb one of my novels. As expected, the editor requested an author photo. Up until then, I’d been using the same vague candid shot for my published pieces, as well as for my blog bio and my Gmail account:
I reconsidered the photograph. If I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, maybe it was time to look more professional? I decided I would send a conventional picture: one where you could see my actual visage. I looked around for something to use, but as I flipped through my social media accounts it suddenly dawned on my that I never showed my face. I am either hiding…
…behind my daughter Loy:
…behind my cat:
Only on Goodreads did I discover a smiling face-forward photograph of me, although, truth be told, it’s also really old (I believe it was taken at Loy’s 4th birthday party):
V. I don’t usually look at an author photo until I’ve finished reading a book. I try not to form any sort of preconceived judgement because, well, because we’re humans and we cannot help but judge a book by its cover—or author photo, anyway.
Right after I wrote that paragraph I wondered if that were true. Do I enjoy a book more if the author is handsome? Less so if she/he/they are not becoming? The answer is a resounding NO. Why then do I care about how I appear to readers? Why should it be important to be attractive in one’s photo?
According to this essay on the history of author photos, here’s why it’s important:
Today, an alluring author photo has become less a “bonus feature,” as it was for Twain, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, and more a golden ticket for literary success. “Interesting, beautiful or unusual photographs,” according to Eckstut and Sterry, “have a way of ending up in ‘pick of the week’ sections of newspapers, on the homepages of websites, or in the posts of bloggers.” Such “arresting visuals,” they tell the reader, can dramatically increase one’s chances of getting a feature or catching the eye of a publisher, publicist, or bookseller.
VI. As much as I hated the assumption that a comely author doth a successful writing career make, I didn’t have the time to fight it. Brevity was waiting. Because my cancer treatment rendered me partially bald, and I wasn’t about to take a selfie, I rummaged around for something akin to a “real” author photo. At the very least, I needed one a tad more contemporary. One that didn’t show me eating, or petting my cat. Knowing I would never unearth one that was interesting, beautiful, and unusual, I lowered the bar. I came across this 3-year-old picture of me standing in my friend Kara’s clothing boutique. I’d just had my hair cut, highlighted, and blown straight. I’m not making eye contact with the camera (still hiding), but the brick backdrop makes it border on interesting. My hair, at least, is attractive.
VII. Someday I will finish writing the novel I’m working on and it will find a publisher. By then my hair will have recovered its length and the pandemic will have ended. Will I hire a professional photographer to shoot my new author photo? Maybe I will.
I know that no matter how much money I spend I will never appear as clever, classy, or cunning as Lahiri (nor will I ever—no matter how much I practice—write as beautifully). But I will look at the camera, smile, and say “cheese” because it’s high time I learn to face the world, dead-on.
I might not have arrestingly photogenic features, but I know how to tell a good story. Aesthetic beauty, as social media knows it, may be in the eye of the beholder. But pure and playful beauty, as far as I’m concerned, should lie within the words on a page.