On the grody rise of the author photo

While I have largely come to roll my eyes at French criticism and the whole “death of the author thing” over the years, I have chosen for my last four or five books to keep my face off them and reduce things like dedication pages, acknowledgments, and bios as much as possible. This is partly because ever since 2010, I’ve simply gotten uglier, but it’s also trying to let the work stand for itself. But we live in an age that worships faces. Fame is the food of our gods, and we are its farmers (can’t stop, won’t stop writing aphorisms, yo). But this sort of dish is not to my taste anymore (can’t stop, won’t stop overextending metaphors, yo). However, I do have a new and selected poems coming next Fall and I imagine there’ll be some pressure to show Old Man George somewhere in the book. Maybe I’ll do something affected and pseudo-arty like get someone to sketch me for it. Or I’ll get a Sears-type one done with me face-on and a ghostly me in profile in the bg. Or I’ll just become one of those authors who never changes their press photo and when you see them in person you start wondering who the bald raisin on stage is. Anyway, this article examines the phenomenon of faces on books.

To a writer, an author photo is almost like a diploma. It stays with you for life (or at least until it is replaced or superseded by another one). And while it may not necessarily hurt you if it is “bad,” it will most certainly help you if it is “good.” “An enticing author photograph can really help your book,” advise Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry in The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. “This doesn’t mean you have to look like a model; it just means you have to look your best.”

It is tempting and perhaps even warranted for me to lament the significance awarded to the author photo as an unfair, misleading, and superficial distraction from literary purity. But I know such complaints will fall on unsympathetic ears. This is the age of Instagram, a world where the “beauty” of the artist is not a peripheral detail, but a commodity to be optimized, showcased, and marketed just as much—if not more than—the art itself.

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