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?