I know she’s out there. I know that she’s just waiting to be plucked from the masses like Kelly Clarkson at a karaoke contest. The problem is… I’m not sure if anyone is looking for her.
Sure, it takes talent to be a vocalist, musician or actor. And hundreds of these artists grace the covers of magazines every month. It also takes real talent to be a writer. Yet, I have never seen a writer on the cover of Glamour Magazine. Never.
Writing is sexy, or at least they say. But, they are referring to an imagined “mystique” of writers. They are referring to men with black rimmed glasses and gray turtlenecks who drink espresso while typing on their laptops in Starbucks. Those people are not sexy. Those people are taking up space at tables where others could be sitting.
Sexy writers are duking it out with their keyboards at home on the couch. They are guzzling Mountain Dew while they organize their chicken-scratched plot notes. They rely on word count, spellcheck and aspirin. They are fascinating storytellers with imaginations to admire. They have personalities and biases and opinions and talent.
Yet, we know very little about many of them.
On book covers, authors rarely are pictured, and if they are, they usually look constipated or angry. (Recently, I went to the local bookstore, and flipped over all of the featured best-sellers on a nearby table. Alice Munro was the ONLY author smiling in her picture. Thank you, Alice!) And author bylines often read like resumes, listing off publications but avoiding personal details. (Every so often, we’ll learn one vague fact about the author, i.e. “Art Author lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons.” La-de-da.) In magazines and periodicals, it is rare for us to see much more than an author’s name.
After a quick flip through facebook (which of course, is the highest form of research), it seems as if the living author with the most likes is Stephen King with four million fans. (J.K. Rowling is a close second.) Yet, most “well-known” authors have fewer than one million likes. Young author Veronica Roth of the Divergent series hasn’t even topped 500,000 yet. (Geez, even most of the “Real Housewives” have more than half a million likes.) Most well-known singers, musicians, and actors have at least a couple million fans on facebook. (For example, Taylor Swift has over 73 million likes. 73 million!)
This isn’t necessarily Veronica Roth’s fault, nor should she necessarily want to be the Taylor Swift of Fiction. Every author has the right to care more about contributing to the art of literature than gaining facebook popularity. However, I’m just making the argument that we don’t give authors the same opportunities as other “artists.”
Ever since Oprah retired her original book club, authors have retreated even further away from the media… either by choice or by neglect. On my last count of Wikipedia’s recent list of guests on the Ellen DeGeneres television show, only 4 of the 740 guests were known primarily as authors. Four out of 740. (For the record, Lewis Blackwell, Jonathan Safran Foer, Alec Greven, and Stephanie Meyer were the lucky authors in the past few years. I eventually stopped counting after I hit 740 guests.) And in the American reality television world, there are dozens of “talent” competitions (i.e. drag queens, pastry chefs, platform divers, fashion designers, makeup artists, and entrepreneurs), yet there are none about writing. (Apparently, Italy launched a reality writing show last year, but received less than flattering reviews.) High-brow newspapers and National Public Radio certainly grace us with carefully constructed and unobtrusive interviews from a very select fraternity of authors (Tartt, Grisham, Kingsolver) regarding the “craft” of their work. And C-SPAN does its best to educate us with textbook-esque interviews from “authors” who are already esteemed professionals (i.e. actors who write their own autobiographies or politicians releasing new books just in time for re-election). But, in all of these examples, it seems as if mainstream media doesn’t allow authors to be much more than their work of art. They are rarely celebrated as well… people.
For better and for worse, we make it easy for authors to separate their celebrity from their work. Historically, only a few select male authors have had their turn in the limelight (i.e. Hemingway, Kerouac, and Mailer), while most female authors never achieved much more than a nod and a tip of the hat. (Even J.K. Rowling’s celebrity felt hushed compared to the celebrity of Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe. While most could recognize Radcliffe on the street, it seemed as if fewer could recognize Rowling.) Our disinterest is apparent. And so, the beastly stereotype of nameless hipster authors dwelling in Starbucks thrives.
I don’t have many answers, as I don’t believe it is an author’s responsibility to be in the public eye. However, I imagine that there must be young authors who would be happy to sit down and chat with Ellen. (Who wouldn’t?!) Would it kill us to make writing, dare I say it, look fun? I’m sure that some of these writers appreciate their anonymity from the masses. And I respect the right of an artist to choose separation from his work. Certainly, I’m not making the argument that a writer needs to be as pretty as her manuscript. Instead, I’m arguing that writers already are equally pretty, but we don’t bother to care.
Let’s ask them about their inspirations. Let’s post their pictures on the covers of mainstream magazines. Let’s interview them on mainstream television. Let’s allow them to step out from behind the curtain of fiction. Let’s find that hunky brunette who actually is the perfect balance of brains and brawn. Let’s post his picture on middle school lockers next to pin-ups of One Direction.
Recently, I published two children’s chapter books. Apparently, neither book had room for an author photo on the back cover. So, I uploaded a big, smiling, photo of myself (and stone-faced Labrador retriever) on my author page on Amazon. For a moment, I felt incredibly self-conscious. Should I really post a picture of myself where I look so darn happy? Or, should I pay money for a professional black and white headshot, complete with a disinterested pout? The latter seemed ridiculous to me, so I stuck with my overjoyed shiny, smiley self-portrait. I might not be a pinup, but at least I look like I’m a happy, unconstipated person.
Now is the time for authors to inspire our youth. Now is the time for writers to be role models. Now is the time for lipsticked, well-poised, twenty something fiction writers to be featured on daytime television. Now is the time for children to want to grow up to be authors and not just pop stars. Other people are on the hunt for the next Taylor Swift or Emma Stone. Well, I’m on the hunt for the FIRST supergirl of fiction. I’d like to introduce her to a generation in desperate need of her autograph.