Tuesday morning I watched my Twitter feed fill up with point and counterpoint: an endless stream of retweeted photos taken on the red carpet of Monday night’s Met Gala and another endless stream of literary people aggravated by an article in Entertainment Weekly on the subject of debut novelists. It turns out, the piece announced, that being conventionally good-looking or articulate can boost the advance on royalties a first-time author gets for his or her novel. This wasn’t news back in the 1980s, when the Brat Pack signed rich book contracts while being photographed wearing cool clothes in Manhattan nightclubs, but somehow every time it gets reported (every six or seven years or so) it is always received as a disgusting revelation.
I agree that this isn’t a great situation, and as Slate’s Mallory Ortberg pointed out over at the Toast, one quote from Knopf editor Claudia Herr—“We would have paid her the same money if she weighed 500 pounds and was really hard to look at”—registered as particularly insensitive. It’s dehumanizing to all of us to relegate anyone’s body to the status of “hard to look at.” But whether there’s cause enough in it to indict book publishing en masse is another matter.
What does all this have to do with the Met Gala? The event consisted entirely of young, slender, beautiful people walking around in extravagant clothes, a phenomenon deemed fascinating enough to generate scores of articles and many more admiring tweets, some from the same people who complained about the Entertainment Weekly story.
This is not to run down the Met Gala because: whatever. While I couldn’t care less about it personally, you should knock yourself out, if it makes you happy. Let a million slideshows bloom! Nevertheless, the fascination with that red carpet does demonstrate, once again, just how much the media cares about how people look, and also that one of the reasons they care so much about it is that we do, too. Book publishers take this into account when offering on a first novel because they know that the sales of debut fiction are tragically dependent on the press—not so much reviews as profiles and other feature stories that focus less on the book than on the author as a personality.
The media loves the idea of tipping off its readers to a first-time novelist who’s young, achingly handsome, and brilliant, the embodiment of a zillion cheesy romantic fantasies. (Never mind that it’s the very rare novelist indeed whose first book is a masterpiece.) It also loves writers over 60 who publish a book for the first time because people like that give hope to the approximately 75 percent of Americans who believe they’re going to write a terrific novel themselves some day, once they finally get the time. (If you’re talking about the journalists who write these stories themselves, that percentage bumps up to 99.) They like an author with an unusual or traumatic personal story, especially if some of that story makes it into the novel itself. They prefer good talkers, colorful characters, and the celebrity-adjacent over the shy, quiet, unprepossessing people that writers usually are.
None of this has much to do with the quality of an author’s book, I hear you protest. I concur: It sucks that this matters. And most people in publishing think it sucks, too, I assure you. It’s hard enough to find someone who not only can write well but can also reliably produce a book that people want to read. The need for authors to be mediagenic in some fashion is nothing but an additional nuisance. And yet that’s often what it takes to get us, the public, to pay any attention to them at all. The way an author looks can affect how big an advance she gets, because it affects how much coverage her book gets, and that coverage affects its sales.
Given how pervasive the imperatives of celebrity culture are, why are we so surprised by this? Why do we find it such a bitter, bitter betrayal, even as we spend half the morning poring over Beyoncé’s gown and makeup? I suspect it’s because most readers like to think of books and literature as not just above and beyond all that but fundamentally separate from it. The world of books should provide us with a sanctuary from the mercilessly unfair, superficial world around us, because that’s exactly what books did when we were young. For the bookish child, reading serves as a secret garden, a place of refuge where what counts isn’t popularity but inner beauty, truth, and art. Books show us a way out, whether we want to escape a high school full of mean girls or a Hobbesian family where might always makes right.
Then, as adults, we want book publishing to exist in an incorruptible pocket universe. It needs to remain better than the world that has let us down again and again. It should be a realm in which all any editor ever worries about is the merit of the manuscript in her hand and where there’s an infinite amount of time for the industry’s brightest minds to comb through the slush pile in search of that proverbial gem. Despite ample evidence that publishers are businesspeople best viewed as investors in manuscripts they believe they can market to the public, we persist in imagining them as fairy godmothers whose enchanted touch bestows upon us, Pinocchio-style, the status of “real writers.” Economically, book publishing is a low-margin, low-growth industry where everyone struggles for a bit of purchase in a culture that seems less and less interested in what it has to offer. In our dreams, it is an intellectual and artistic Valhalla, where we can finally be valued at our true worth and mingle with the great spirits we have adored ever since we first learned to turn a page. Even book editors feel this way: Otherwise, why embark on such an unpromising career path?
So it’s inevitable that book publishing will disappoint us. Some of its flaws—especially its lack of diversity in race and class—must be corrected; that’s both the right thing to do and essential to the industry’s survival. But book publishing will never be purified of all the venal, commercial, and petty concerns of the world, because it is and always has been part of that world. It cares about what we care about, whether we want to admit that to ourselves or not.