In 3 days, I will start to receive beta reader feedback about my YA dystopian novel, Wrinkle (although one beta reader got back to me a week ago, which was unexpected and fantastic). I’m thrilled but scared, curious but anxious. It is quite possible these readers will tell me that my novel sucks. And that’s okay. I’m ready for that.
What I’m not ready for is the physical transformation I may need to undergo if the book is actually decent and if I find an agent and if the book gets published. You see, I do not look like a writer of speculative fiction. For your reference, I currently (as in, I literally took this photo 2 seconds ago) look like this:
Do you look at this photo and think, “Wow, that guy might be from the future”? No way. And that’s what I need you to think. At best you might look at this and think, “Wow, that guy might be from the future, if in the future people never hit puberty.”
In contrast, here’s what my boy Tolkien looked like:
Hot damn! You look at that photo and know right away that he has some stories to tell. He’s clearly an authority on other worlds. Look at that pipe! It was probably hand-crafted by dwarf-hobbit hybrids. Also, it doesn’t hurt that he’s English. I bet in an A/B test, you’d choose the English writer of epic fantasy over the American any day.
Now, I’m not saying that looking the part is all it takes to be a good writer. It has absolutely nothing to do with it, in fact. But I wonder if the way readers perceive authors affects their decision to trust the author’s storytelling ability.
Here’s another example, George R. R. Martin (initials seem to be another trend–J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, etc.) of Game of Thrones fame:
Sweet baby Jesus! After seeing that on the back flap of a book, do you have any doubt that he has an epic tale to tell? Walk yourself through this: You’re in a bookstore (does that happen anymore?) and you pick up A Dance with Dragons. Now, flip to the back cover and picture my smiling face instead of Martins? What happens, psychologically, when you see my face? What happens when you see his?
Here’s another one, a recently very successful fantasy writer named Patrick Rothfuss:
By the hammer of Thor, that’s a fantasy writer. I think the beard has a big part to do with it. Not only do these guys look like they know what they’re talking about, but they also seem highly approachable. I’m not saying that I’m unapproachable, but honestly, who would you feel more comfortable approaching at a book convention?
The flip side is to go with an author photo that makes the reader feel like they just stumbled upon an undiscovered beauty. My first experience with this was when I was reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I had fallen in love with her writing within the first 50 pages, and then I flipped to the back cover and found myself eye-to-eye with this beauty:
Look at those cheekbones! I could bathe in the indentation between them and her jawline. She’s pretty, but she’s interesting pretty. She’s just pretty enough to make you think that maybe you are the first person in the world to realize how pretty she is.
And with authors, they’re not just another pretty face. Because you have their precious words in your hands. In writing their book, they gave you permission to go inside of them, deeper and deeper until you can’t imagine knowing anyone like you know them, filling them and you with the pleasure and satisfaction of seeing something in someone else that no one else sees.
One more before I make my closing arguments. This is Karen Russell, author of a number of brilliant short stories and the recent novel Swamplandia:
I can’t think of anyone who exemplifies a literary beauty more than Russell. Her face almost has a quiet sadness to it, a welcoming sadness that comes with the burden of truly being about to see people for who they are. Russell looks like she knows things, and maybe she’ll share some of them with you if you read her book.
So where does that leave me, hypothetical author that I am? What sort of physical attributes do I need to be taken seriously as a YA dystopian author? (Again, I use “dystopian” very loosely here, as the future in my book is actually pretty damn good.) What would it take for you to take a single glance at me and think, “I trust what that guy has to say about the future.” Maybe I need those hipster glasses that J.J. Abrams wears? I have 20/20 vision, but I could wear fake lenses or something.