Where’s the mystery?

A writer laments the ubiquity of the author photo and the culture of celebrity.
By Patti Flinn | Published: November 29, 2011


There used to be a time when writers could be just as ugly as the average person. Unfortunately, those glory days are long gone. The press kit and—worse —the online bio are here to stay and are revving up the trauma factor for writers like myself who just want to, you know, write.

I’m not saying I’m unattractive. I’m simply admitting to the fact that I fear the camera. Some people look better in person, and I just happen to be one of those people. But the world is forcing writers to come out of their shell and into the frame, and I do not like it at all. I mean, a photo can only give you what the camera sees; the camera will always miss the subtle nuances. A photograph is to a person as a movie is to a book (standardized-test flashback, anyone?). The movie can be OK, but it will never give you the character development, full-blown plot and beautiful descriptions provided in a book. I want my own fully developed beauty to shine —that’s all I’m saying.

There used to be a saying that attractive people went into film and ugly people went into radio. Aside from the obvious offensiveness of that sentiment, I was happy that writers fell into the latter group of unseen performers. No one really wanted to see writers. People probably thought that all writers were trolls, and most of us, being the introverted lot we are, were happy to allow the assumption to continue. Let the world think we were doing a public service by staying out of sight, right?

But now everyone wants a super-sized glossy. They want writers with flawless skin and flowing hair and a twinkle in their eyes. We have to think about how we will look on television. We have to diet and exercise and never leave the house in hair rollers. It’s not enough to write a great novel; we have to gussy ourselves up to look better than the average joe. We have to do the work of the creative thinker and present ourselves with the polish and shine of Hollywood celebrities. It’s not fair.

I miss the mystery, and I can look to another industry to make my point. At the risk of dating myself, when I was growing up, musicians were gracing their own album covers, and record stores were papered with images of bands and artists belting with gusto. I clearly remember the shock of seeing my favorite bands and realizing that the men seductively crooning me into puberty with voices of velvet resembled (in my humble opinion) toads. Hey, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, unfortunately, I beheld less-than-beautiful men, and it changed the way I listened to their music. I’m ashamed to admit it, but my bias for pretty boys diminished the talent of these men in my eyes. But Prince was smart; he waited until he had developed a following before he revealed himself to the world. We were already sucked into the vacuum cleaner of his purple funkiness by the time we realized he was a grown man in pumps.

Of course, the argument can be made that by learning that a less-than-beautiful man could have a beautiful voice teaches us to look beyond the surface. It could be said that we need to know that beauty is skin deep and that the most beautiful is not always the most talented, most intelligent or even the most kind. Bad people come in pretty packages, too. Bad writers can be the prettiest things to ever grace a photo jacket, and great writers can be a photographer’s worst nightmare. My concern is that a great writer could easily be denied a foot in the door if the industry deems him or her a publicity don’t. If an industry professional has a grown-up version of my childhood pretty-boy bias, it could mean a true talent never gets the chance to shine.

There’s a singing competition on television that incorporates blind selection. The mystery allows the judges to decide where the talent exists before they get blindsided by looks, or lack thereof. I say the writing industry should follow the music industry’s lead. Let us writers go back into anonymity where we want to be. It’s warm and safe there. Or, I don’t know, allow us to hire models to represent ourselves on book jackets like real-life avatars? I’ve got my eye on a woman about a foot taller and 20 pounds lighter. She would match as perfectly with my alter ego—I mean, pen-name persona—as the pair of matching pumps and purse I bought last week. And probably get more wear. Heck, aren’t other artists given license to provide a representation of themselves? Actors and actresses spend hours in hair and scifi makeup. And do you really think painters look as good in real life as they do in their own self-serving self-portraits? I’m just saying: a little mystery never hurt anyone.

Patti Flinn is a freelance writer and novelist from Columbus, Ohio. She also writes romance novels as Ava Bleu.