Even though Carole DeSanti, Viking editor of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, deliberately chose not to include 27-year-old Marisha Pessl's author photo with the galleys, reviewers repeatedly revered her looks. Gawker even conducted its own internal debate about whether she had transcended "book hot" and was, indeed, "TV hot."
As a young woman anticipating the publication of my first book—Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body—which Free Press will publish next April, I watched the circus surrounding Pessl's looks with nervous interest. Suddenly it wasn't my words that I was most worried about, but my eyebrows. Should I get them waxed? I know I'm not "TV hot," but am I at least "book hot"?
Instead of answers, these questions were followed by a wave of feminist guilt—as if Gloria herself were standing over my shoulder shouting, "Get serious, girl! This is not what we fought so hard for." But let's face it: even Gloria didn't shy away from being looked at if it meant having her message heard, too. I think it would be far less feminist of me to refuse to play the game at all if playing the game a little means that I can reach people and pay my rent in the process.
The cruel irony, of course, is that in the process of working on this book—the central message of which is that young women need to stop obsessing about their looks and start changing the world—I have often been driven to self-scrutiny. It began with the selling of the proposal. A mentor gave me tiny gold "TV earrings"; I prefer big silver hoops. Another insisted I get an expensive haircut. I did, though I refused her offer to do my makeup before meetings. Mascara makes me feel like a Venus flytrap, not a savvy writer full of potential.
The lobbies and the conference rooms, and even my own little heartfelt shtick, began to blend together. But what was clear was that a publicity rep had been invited to every meeting with explicit instructions—to make sure I could sound both articulate and accessible—and implicit instructions—to "check out the goods." And by goods, of course, I'm not talking about my hefty metaphors or shapely sentences. Crudely put, no one wants to read a book about the overvaluation of beauty by an ugly girl. Just look at my predecessors: Naomi Wolf, author of the wildly successful The Beauty Myth, is herself a real beauty. Alex Kuczynski, author of the recently released Beauty Junkies, has the looks that some of her subjects are paying big money to get.
Though I don't think of myself as on par with these easy-on-the-eyes writers, it appears I managed not to scare away the PR reps as a few houses bid on the book. Advance in hand, I researched, interviewed, wrote and revised, and have created what I believe is a worthwhile book. And now for the author photo, the publicity campaign, the book tour... the beauty pageant of the book world. Ugh.
On the other hand, I'm willing to do what it takes to get my message out. I am not above buying an expensive suit if it means that even one teenage girl in Topeka, Kan., questions why she is spending more time thinking about her waist than the war in Iraq.
When I first came to this business, older, experienced authors warned me how disappointed writers are when they learn about the publishing industry. They said editors weren't even editors anymore; that the bottom line, not ideas, mattered most. I am happy to report that I've found they were wrong. I was a nobody, and there were a dozen of editors willing to hear me out. My editor is a meticulous, passionate woman who craves social change as acutely as I do and loves to edit the hell out of good ideas. My publicist is a thoughtful and funny lady who doesn't wear much makeup herself and doesn't seem to expect me to, either.
Turns out that the disappointing thing about publishing is that it is part of the rest of the world, where a woman's looks are still treated with the serious scrutiny that should be reserved for her words.
|Courtney E. Martin is a writer, filmmaker and teacher.|