Monday, September 10, 2007

Author Photos, Part Two

Why do people want to see a photo of whatever slightly deranged human wrote the book they’re reading—or thinking about reading? Vulgar curiosity? A search for insight into the psyche that produced the story?

I’ll admit that sometimes when I’m reading a book, I’ll flip to the author photo and spend several moments contemplating it and wondering, What is this person really like? Can we actually get that from a picture? Yes and no.

Ironically, despite the publishing industry’s recent fixation on the young and the beautiful, I find the craggier, more individualistic authors the most interesting. There is a certain sameness in youth and beauty (my own two beautiful young daughters being the exceptions, of course) that is far less evocative then the rugged individualism of someone like, say, James Lee Burke.

Yet I once shared a chatty elevator ride with JLB on my way up to listen to him talk at the Louisiana Book Festival and didn’t even recognize him. He looked as if he’d been ill; he was pale, he’d lost weight, and he was wearing a business suit and a tie, of all things. Does this mean I think JLB should redo his author photo to save future fans from a similar embarrassment? No. Because the photo that typically appears in the backs of his books beautifully encapsulates the man and the experiences that shaped his books, even if that photo is twenty years old.

At one of my book signings several years ago, a reader came up to me and said in a decidedly annoyed, accusatory manner: “You don’t look like your picture. You have short hair in your picture.” I just blinked at her and said, “Uh…yes.” The Author Photo was less than five years old at the time and I really hadn’t aged much; I’d simply grown my hair out a few inches (I went through a short-short hair phase at one point). Yet this was enough of a change that the reader seemed to feel I had cheated her in some way, as if authors are supposed to change our photos every time we change our hairstyle or gain or lose a few pounds.

That said, I’ve definitely known some authors who let too many years pass between photo shoots. I once met a romance author who in her author photo was elfin thin and had long dark hair. When I met her, she had short gray hair and weighed about 250 pounds. I would never, ever have recognized her. Does she sell more books because her younger, prettier self is on them? Probably. Do I blame her for not changing her photo? No. I can understand, just as I try to understand those who’ve succumbed to the pressure and joined the Nick and Tuck Crowd.

I remember one time when I was in high school I went dress shopping with my mother. My mother turns ninety this Saturday, so she was already middle aged when she had me. I remember saying to her, “Why do you always make that funny face when you try on clothes and look in the mirror?” And she said, “Because I can’t believe that fat old woman in the mirror is me.”

Who among us over a certain age doesn’t suffer a shock whenever they look in a mirror? I suspect most people have a “set” age inside. Inside, I’m thirty-five. So when I look in the mirror, I do a double take. Whoa! Who put all those smile lines there? How can that woman be me?

The photo that will go on the back of my books is just a tiny slice of me in time. But as I was floating on that raft out in the middle of the lake the other day, it occurred to me that if I again wait eleven years before I redo my author photo, by that time I’ll be….Eeek!


Lisa said...

I completely identify with everything you've said. A blogger I really like posted a partial photo of herself the other day and said something like, "I've been trying to take a picture of myself but this old lady keeps getting in the way". I used to mentally think of myself as about 27 and now it's about 35. I see it happening and I don't feel much differently in my mind, but it's undeniable that I'm a middle aged woman. My skin is no longer youthful and there's no amount of makeup that will hide my crows feet. But I don't mind my age. I guess I feel like I've earned it, but I do feel like I'm on that strange precipice of invisibility that women tend to enter at some point. One day I woke up I no longer turned heads when I walked into a room. I'd joined the ranks of some other strange generation where I think we all feel young inside and we don't want to age the way our parents did, but we're not sure what we are now.

Steve Malley said...

I'd say we're after psychological insight.

I'm not above it. Even if I didn't look at the photo before I bought the book, once I find my self being sucked into the story, I flip to the author photo. I want to 'see' who wrote it!

Something deep in our tribal past makes us want to reconcile the words on the page with the face of the storyteller. And bookfolk make an effort to line up those images with expectations.

I just picked up a few crime, chick lit and sff books off the shelf. There's a bunch of crime writers looking tough and capable (and, in a couple of cases, slightly deranged), the chick lit ladies looking quirky and fun, and Neal Stephenson, Jim Butcher and Terry Pratchett - all in capes!

Fair enough too. Imagine James Lee Burke's photo on the back cover of Rachel's Holiday!

Charles Gramlich said...

As long as I can remember I've read those "About the Author" pieces at the backs of books, and no doubt there were pictures with them. I can't really remember giving any of those photos more than a cursory glance. Strange as it sounds, I don't think I'm a very visual person. That's not quite right but I don't know how else to put it.

Lisa said...

I realized I got so caught up in my first comment that I never answered the question. I feel pretty much like Charles does. If there was no author photo, I wouldn't care. I like to think it doesn't have an impact on me, but I imagine that on some level it has to. I do know that it doesn't influence me toward or away from a book at all. If Michael Chabon looked like the Elephant Man, I'd still read all his books.

Sphinx Ink said...

I love the photo! Regardless of what you see in it (since you're your own worst critic, of course), I think you look great, your smile is wonderful, and it looks natural--rather than stiff or awkward as studio photos so often look.

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