Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Author Photos: You’re a Star Baby

Author photographs help sell books, or so I’ve been told. When people pick up a book and read the description on the back cover they look for an image of the author, and what they expect to see is someone who looks literary. This is where the clichés start: glasses give off an intellectual air, perhaps a hand under the chin, and there should be stacks of books in the background. Poets should have loose wild hair and a bohemian style, maybe add a bangle or two. The more serious and solemn the book, the more austere and beaten down the writer should look. Attractiveness in the literary world is not necessary and may even be viewed with suspicion. Disheveled is better.

We are a visual culture, and although unconsciously we make judgments based on these visual cues, do readers really expect to learn something about the author’s private thoughts through a picture? These posed and stylized images are of the public persona. It makes no more sense to do this, than to assume the “I” in a book is really the author.

I recently picked up a book from my shelf, one I was given as a gift some years ago and kept meaning to read. When I looked at the author photo I was so shocked, and laughed so hard, I thought I might pee. Here was an esteemed professor, at New York University’s Biology Department, bare-chested with a cascading waterfall running over him like he was a Calvin Klein underwear model. How on earth did they convince this man to do something so foolish? Yes, he looks good, but the poor sucker must have gotten quite the ribbing from his colleagues.

I’m sure I am not the only one to see through this marketing ploy. He is a philosopher and one with nature, as elemental as the rocks he is leaning against, but as far as academia goes, could anyone take this guy serious after looking at that ridiculously staged photograph? Marketing gurus tell us that an author photo should exude the qualities the book itself exemplifies, but for me the more an author photo tries to convince me of its connection to the text, the more laughable the result.