Written All Over Your Face

(photo thanks to Ola Bell)

Every time I read a book, I do it.  I know I shouldn’t, but I do.  I can usually only resist for a couple pages before I flip to the back to check out the picture of the author.  That photo is like eye candy.  I just can’t help myself.  Just one more little taste. 

If I’m reading and I come across a bit I really like, I turn to the author’s picture and raise my eyebrow as if to say, “Well hello there, aren’t you clever!”  When a character does something I didn’t anticipate, I search the author’s face for an explanation.  Anne Lamott looks like the perfect grrrlfriend.  Jose Saramago wears retro glasses that make him look terribly cute.  Vladimir Nabokov has the perfect pedantic purse to his lips and Philip K Dick should never, ever shave his beard. 

But sometimes, that photo ruins everything.  Did you know that it only takes a tenth of a second for our brains to form an opinion about a personality by looking at a face ?  Sometimes I look at an author’s portrait (face propped awkwardly upon one fist or wearing a smug expression or caked with makeup) and I think, oh, no, I don’t think you and I are going to get along.  I might even stop reading.  Yes, it’s catty and shallow, but it’s true, so I might as well fess up.

As a kid, I never had any idea what writers looked like.  Maybe because photos were considered an unnecessary expense or because publishers knew how the author’s face would predispose the audience but, whatever the reason, perhaps I read with a more open mind as a result.  

The same goes for music.  Would Freddy Mercury make it today with those crooked teeth?  How about someone as don’t-give-a-fuck as Janis Joplin?  Everyone who watches those horrid shows on television knows that if you have “star quality” that means you have a cookie-cut package.  It’s true: video did kill the radio star. (But look at that Gaga, taking it all off and saying it isn’t natural. Go, girl.) 

As a writer, I made a conscious decision not to display pictures of myself.  On WordPress, Facebook, and Twitter, I deliberately substituted my face with a painting of a woman that looks nothing like me.  I did this for (at least) two reasons: because I don’t believe a writer has to have a face and because my face is an inept expression of my ideas. 

I think a photogenic face ought to be unnecessary for a serious writer.  We should just close our eyes (so to speak) and listen.  In fact, both good and bad photographs might get in the way.  Our culture is bipolar; we believe that pretty people are not very deep but, no matter how articulate that ugly one is, we still won’t listen to a word she says. 

But my face just doesn’t go with my ideas, the same way that peas don’t go with honey and a fancy feather-and-net cloche doesn’t fit over a ponytail.  I don’t even think it’s a good idea to describe what I look like in writing.  Suffice it to say that my mouth is just the wrong shape for the words I write.  Look: I’m a writer, not an actress, not a spokesperson.  

If I could design my own, I’d choose a serious face.  Vera Nabokov’s nose, Frida Kahlo’s eyebrows, and Virginia Woolf’s melancholy.  Those are the faces I want to read.  Oh, and throw some Gertrude Stein and Elsa Schiaparelli and Georgia O’Keeffe in there, but not the young Georgia O’Keeffe, because I want to see a little character in my writer’s face.  

When I’m old enough, when I’ve earned the face that I deserve, as they say, then maybe it won’t matter anymore.  Then, I’ll have a portrait taken.  For now, my surrogate face will have to do. 

*

If you like this, maybe you’ll like this chapter, one of my favorites.

Question:  What do you think?  Is the photograph of the writer a help or a hindrance?  Does your outside fit your inside? Why do you/don’t you include your picture on your blog?

About girl in the hat

aka Anna Fonté, writer of novels, short stories, personal essays, and bits about the neighborhood crows. The things I write want you to look at them.

30 comments

  1. It is a complete hindrance and an issue I suffer over terribly. I don’t need a ghost writer, but I will need a face stand in if it becomes necessary. Yet my face at various ages and conditions is all over my blog and google and stuff, so . . .

    It’s so true though. No one would guess the stuff in my head by looking at my face.

  2. I have never considered this from this angle. I worry that showing my face will limit my readership. My characters come in all races, and my themes tend to be universal, women’s issues, but I know there are plenty of readers who will not read “black” fiction, and would assume they could not relate to my novel if they saw my picture. So, my picture is not prominent on my website, but I’m not invisible either. I go back and forth with it. I suspect my FB pic captures the irreverence in the tone of my work, but it’s hard for me to judge. As a reader though, I tend to look at the author’s picture only if the book is very good or outrageously crappy. Memoirs, more than anything, make me want to see the author. When I read “A Piece of Cake”, I must have looked at the author’s picture 60 or 70 times, trying to see evidence of the strength it took to survive her life. With “Jesusland”, another excellent memoir, I felt cheated because there was only a childhood picture on the cover. So I looked online until I could find the person who had taken such control of my emotions. And yet you’re right. The part of them that connected with me is not visible. As for your profile picture, I must admit that when I was scrolling through friend suggestions one day and saw that painting, I thought that anyone who would choose such a fabulous painting as a profile pic deserved further scrutiny, and that’s how I ran across your blog. And now I really want to know what you look like.

    • “The part of them that connected with me is not visible.” Nicely put. I know exactly what you mean! Maybe that’s why I keep looking!
      I agree that your fb pic does convey irreverence and wry humor and something sharp, too.
      And thank you for this, Donna, because the color of my skin was not even part of my thinking, and now I have a lot more to think about.

  3. I also often wonder why on earth an author looks so incredibly different than what I expect them to. And sometimes it bugs me, that I’ve imagined them differently than they actually are. But it’s never affected me to the degree that you’ve said it affects you – I’d never stop reading because of an author’s picture, not if I like the book.

    Having said that, I can totally understand your wish not to be seen yet. The photos that I have on WordPress and a couple other sites are black-and-white and never show my whole face, because I, too, am afraid of being judged by how I look.

    • I don’t actually judge a book by the author’s face. (Can you imagine?! Is that where we’re headed!!??) But it has happened that I read a page or two and get a sinking feeling, then turn to the pic and have that feeling affirmed, and so I just cut my losses then and there. Perhaps without the photo I would have read a bit further before abandoning ship. And my omission of my face is more of an editorial decision than one of fear– like an excess of adjectives or an awkward turn of phrase, my face just doesn’t add to the meaning of my writing. Maybe some day it will.

  4. I’ve got a lot of rebel in me, and that’s probably rarely seen anywhere in my life, much less on my face. If my dark skin starts weeding out readers who don’t deserve me, you may begin to see my mug plastered all over!

    I like one picture of me I put on my blog on the Bits and Pieces page. I was about three and still unafraid to smile at a camera. (There’s another, but I won’t mention where it is because I hate it.) Now I’m continuing to heal from my marriage hell and an ill considered prescription for unlimited banana splits and carrot cake that the devil whispered into my ear. I’m listening to my body now (especially my knees) and whittling myself back down to health and my fighting weight. After that I plan to rock a photo of myself on the blog — even though photographers keep saying that I’m smiling “wrong.” (Maybe I’ll have a couple of mojitos first to take my mind off whatever that means.)

    Like Donna, memoirs make me want to refer to the photos of the author a lot. With other books I have to look, but often I avoid it after that and plunk myself down into their story. I do wonder what people will think of my picture once they see one that actually looks like me. I could love it, but it could still be a let down to readers. I hope not, but c’est la vie.

    • Where does that rebel make an appearance, I’d like to know. ;)
      What does that mean, smiling wrong? Maybe the no-smile thing is the way to go. I’m also thinking that a direct address towards the camera might be too much– perhaps a profile or a side-look is the way to go to promote mystery and allure. ;)
      I’m listening to my lower back and my poor feet. They seem to have a lot to say, lately.

  5. I want to know how many hits you get with all those tags!

  6. Carol Lovekin

    You write beautifully. I’m an author photo lover too. Like you I return – time & again for enlightenment – to that enigmatic portrait. They’re almost always enigmatic. (A smiling one feels too real; leaves nothing to the imagination & seems like an anomaly.) I like my authors with an air of mystery. That they may be camera shy, or simply posers is neither here nor there.

    I read everything but the book before I begin. Including (in particular, frankly) the bits at the end that explain; & which in fairness, ought to be at the beginning. I love blurbs & author bios; maps & bibliographies & joy of joy, chapter headings!

    It would be easy to criticise those authors who use the same photo year in, year out. The prolific ones we love to loathe. And yet something in me approves – the mystery deepens. (She can’t still look like that, can she?) The picture becomes a mask.

    I’m old enough to have earned my face. I quite like it & can even deal with seeing my mother when I look in the mirror.

    • Welcome, Carol, and thanks for your comment– I know what you mean about all the other stuff. I love chapter headings– they’re like proverbs or little bits of poetry. “The picture becomes a mask.” LOVE that! I’m going to go think about that one, in fact. Thanks again for stopping by!

  7. elma

    Thank you very much for this momenty of truth! I ran into my bookshelf to see the portraits of the authors of my books and I have not found (but I have not checked all the books). I like what Donna says “The part of them that connected with me is not visible”. To show that I read only to find answers to questions about me I wrote: “I did not choose the books but they came alone to me and although I did not always understand the big words used, I understood meaning of sentences like I was in communication with the words in another way. “So, in fact for me the photo of the author did not really matter (although I prefer it there is not) and if my picture is on facebook is probably that I do have not considered the influences it may have. To be honest, another explanation may be that although I consider myself still young, I am no longer really if I refer to the standard! “When I’m old enough, when I’ve earned the face that I deserve, as they say, then maybe it won’t matter anymore”. I love the relevance of your items. (I’m sorry for my bad English, I am learning).

    • You say “I did not always understand the big words used, I understood meaning of sentences like I was in communication with the words in another way“ and it made me think again that if I didn’t keep turning to look at that face for answers (as if it were a real face-to-face conversation!), maybe I would be paying better, closer attention to those words on the page. Thanks for this!

  8. I think the answer is to have a synopsis of your book tattoo’d on your face. Unless someone has already done that. Wasn’t that what the robe of Turin was all about? (religious humor. I apologize to anyone who might…)

    • Mr. Halliday, that is a FABULOUS idea. (But I don’t know about you, but don’t you find synopses the dullest things?)

      • Carol Lovekin

        And so aggravating to write… surely, when I tell them, my story is about a small ghost, two lesbians, a great deal of rain & a little knitting, that ought to suffice?

        But no, they will want synopses…

  9. Like you, I find an unpleasant face completely distracting. And if the cover has a photograph resembling the character, forget it. I lose track of the one I’ve created in my mind.

    I don’t have a picture of me on my About page, although I do have one buried on my very first post. I don’t know whether my inside matches my outside–I try not to think about it too much, because I dislike my face and figure my only hope is to have something better than that in terms of personality.

  10. Unlike all of you, I’m not afraid to
    show my real face on my Avatar.

  11. That’s why I only look at pictures of the authors I REALLY enjoy!

    As for me, yep that avatar is pretty much it. ‘Cept I shaved the goatee–it’s grows all gray these days! I’m only 42 for God’s sake! 8( The blue glasses broke a month ago and the earrings have been missing for a while now.

    If I ever get published, I’d probably stick with this avatar as my pic. Keep a sense of mystery with my readers.

  12. I wanted to comment on this for a long time, but kept forgetting. I usually just get right to it, and look at the author’s face in the library or bookstore after reading the description about the book on the dust jacket, and after reading the first couple paragraphs to see if I hate their writing style. To use some of my “guilty pleasure” mystery writer favorites, for example: Janet Evanovich’s picture reflects her Stephanie Plum books perfectly, I think–good humored, upbeat, devoid of substance, full of fluff, painless to read. James Lee Burke looks like someone who would write dark books about troubled cops with a flawed, yet strong, sense of right and wrong. Walter Mosley looks like he’d be deep. T. Jefferson Parker looks like someone who writes for tabloids, but might have characters that were interesting because of how incredibly good or evil they were, but maybe you’d return the library book unread because it’s pretty trite, even though the mystery part is kinda interesting. And, someone who wrote a much more timeless book, Margaret Atwood, well, she looks like someone who knows a lot more than most of us, but where is that little smirk from?

    Oh, and I thought, some time ago, how interesting (to me, anyway) it is that my Gravatar profile is, indeed, my profile. I look better that way, I think. Like someone who would sell his soul for writing-fame-and-fortune.

    • They say that portraits should always be taken from the side, with the subject looking away– that a direct teeth-baring smile to the camera is just too aggressive. Your profile profile is good– it’s almost a non-picture, since I can’t see much with that angle and blur.

  13. I have to tell you I agreed with everything you point out. I have the same issue with myself I rarely show portraits of myself as whole. Usually only either face or parts of the body. Socially I have found that people are most interested in beauty and social status than what people are about. That’s why Id rather people know me as me then first judge by what I look like. Because like you if you’re good at what you do say or believe in then the rest has to fall in place.

  14. quernain

    I see your point but I can’t agree. All of our experiences are etched on to our faces, they may be minuscule but they’re there. Go on, have a look, I’m sure you’ll be able to see them but I doubt many people could. And we write from experience, our characters are hiding there too. I love looking at author photos. Take Stephen King, he looks so ordinary like so many of his characters who do extraordinary things. Neil Gaiman looks as if he tumbled out of one of his books. Sylvia Plath, well, I can’t look at her photo for too long as her pain oozes out of it. Aesthetically I don’t like my photo but am happy to be judged by it and hopefully it’s interesting enough for my readers to want more than a face.

    • I love to look at faces and I’m proud of how my own face has turned out. (As they say, you get the face that you deserve.) However, the persona I write with (because there is no such thing as a completely authentic truth in writing, is there? Truth is always bigger and more layered than can be seen in one word or one flat angle) does not match my face and my ideas are not well represented by any photo of myself I’ve seen. What I was trying to express in this essay was something slightly different than “boo hoo, I don’t like my face.” My decision to keep my face out of it is an editorial decision.
      As I am writing this, I see that I did not address the gender issue, as women’s faces are judged and evaluated by completely different standards than men’s.
      Thank you for your comment– it made me think!

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