Pose Like a Man

From the New York Times:

The cover my publisher chose for my new novel, “The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty,” was indeed very beautiful, but more feminine than I would have ideally liked. It was mostly white, but all the way at the top were the gorgeous chin and red lips of a young woman. Not wanting to be a “difficult author,” I decided not to ask my editor to find a new cover. (She had already been kind enough to change it once.) Instead, I decided to counteract the cover by other means, starting with my author photo.

Until the overly feminine book-jacket problem arose, I had intended to use as my author photo a very flattering snapshot that my boyfriend, Richard, took of me eight years ago on the street in Paris at 3 a.m. I’ve been using it as my Facebook avatar for a long time, and I had been looking forward to putting it to professional use.

Now, changing plans, I made an appointment with the great author photographer Marion Ettlinger. On the phone, I told her I wanted to look stern, severe, strict — possibly standing against a white wall, maybe wearing a black cloak or something. “Like a headmistress?” she asked. “Yes, exactly!” I said, thrilled that she understood.

Two days before the shoot, I flipped through a book of Ms. Ettlinger’s photos to get a sense of how authors typically dressed for their portraits. I made a startling discovery: The male and female authors posed differently. The men looked simpler, more straightforward. The women looked dreamy, often gazing off into the distance. Their limbs were sometimes entwined, like vines.

I decided that I wanted to pose like a man. I also thought: No wonder books by women don’t get reviewed as often as those by men. Maybe it was the poses.

. . . .

I believe that this unconscious prejudice against women, which is extremely strong in the literary world, is present in almost everyone, including in those of us who object to it the most vehemently. I know that I even detect it in myself, sometimes. That’s why I didn’t want to make things even more difficult for my novel by saddling it with a feminine cover or girlie author photo.

I eventually wiped away my rotted thought, which suited my face as poorly as bad lighting, and we resumed our session. When it was over, I could tell there was something Ms. Ettlinger wanted to tell me. Finally, she said, “The photos will be exactly what you asked for.” This was clearly a warning. I knew she thought the photos might not look “good” in the traditional sense. They wouldn’t be “pretty” or “beautiful.” She said that she would not normally produce photos like these for a woman — she would find more graceful poses, search for more flattering angles. I told her that I understood and that I was grateful she’d been willing to honor my preference.

Link to the rest, including a copy of the author’s book photo, at The New York Times


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