Beauty and the Writer
But in the post-do-me feminist, post–Harry Potter publishing climate, nobody can predict what the Next Big Thing will be. So it makes sense, if you can’t force a phenomenon, to attract readers to books the same way you’d attract them to another human being. Instead of confining sex to the text, publishers have been quietly whoring out their authors in the best way they know how.At one time it was enough to be an author with something to say. Then you had to have "platform," because the publishers wanted someone to sell the damned book so no one had to take a risk, even though that's what business really is about.
But now? They want models, actors, pretty boys and girls. How many great authors of the past would make it today? Look at the pseudo biopic, Becoming Jane, about the supposed lost love of Jane Austen. Who did they get to play Austen? The lovely Anne Hathaway, when the author was not a raving beauty. Heaven forbid that Hollywood case someone ... plain in the role.
But perhaps I shouldn't be too hard on the movie. The trend to make writers prettier and the center of romantic intrigue has been around a long time, particularly for female authors. I spoke with Austen scholar Emily Auerbach, a professor of literature at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of Searching for Jane Austen. "Early relatives and editors and critics censored her words, tried to distort her image, actually added ringlets to her portraits to make her look more feminine," she says.
The family, riding the business that Austen become, actually rewrote parts of her letters to make her sound sweeter when, in reality, her sense of observation and descriptive encapsulation could be even sharper than in her books. "For example, she wrote about some neighbors, 'I was a civil to them as their bad breath would allow,'" Auerbach says. The family changed the halitosis reference to something like "as circumstances would allow." Becoming Jane tries to summarize Austen's genius for satire and the comedy of manners with the line, "Their love story was her greatest inspiration." Forget the literate family, early evidence of her gift, her wide reading and critical eye. It all comes down to the romance of the pretty characters. (Heaven help any similar treatment of someone like Nabokov with Lolita hanging in the background.)
Sadly, I don't expect any of this to change, except for the worse. I know writers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s - talented, practiced, with significant life experience - who will never get the break. Not young enough or pretty enough. There are times I begin to understand that J.D. Salinger's hermitage is not simply psychological quirk, but at least in part a clear perception of the essence of commercial publishing. The non-pretty authors may suffer, but I think society loses far more: a chance at some self-knowledge and, perhaps, a touch of soul.