Attractive writers

At one of the literary forums I frequent, there was a recent thread about the most handsome writers in science fiction. I won’t mention the various authors named, but this led me to think about writers and their appearance, about the possible relationship between good books and good looks. I know I should tread carefully here, so I’m just going to stay away from comment about female novelists and poets. However, it does strike me that a high proportion of successful male writers do tend to be strikingly good looking, albeit in their differing ways: The stately Thomas Mann; William Faulkner, the country gentleman; the he-man Hemingway; the urbane Gore Vidal.

Before I started thinking about this, I would have said that writing was a profession in which looks were irrelevant. I still believe that, sort of. But if you check out the photos in, say, “The Literary Life,” by my late friend Robert Phelps and Peter Deane, you’ll see what I mean. Frank Norris was movie-star handsome, as was James Agee. Even Truman Capote was quite the smoldering faun before he put on weight.

Am I crazy to think there might be any link between good books and good looks? I do know, and can readily call to mind, several fine writers who aren’t likely to set hearts racing except when one is reading their work. Yet even Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, who were lacking in obvious physical appeal, presented themselves as if they were million-dollar dandies. Of course, in more recent years, publishers frequently seem to give the big advances to various novel-writing sweethearts of Sigma Phi or to handsome lads like the young Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem. Of course, one might argue that nowadays it’s more important to be a wide-ranging social networker than to be photogenic.

Still, it’s fascinating to read how writers describe themselves in their biographical notes. There was a period when male authors all seem to have spent their youths as roustabouts and ranch hands, or worked on tramp steamers or on North Sea oil rigs. I suppose this was the lingering influence of Hemingway. Nowadays, we are more likely to be told about their current Web sites or blogs or where they teach creative writing. 

Being published is largely but not entirely about writing. Marketability matters. Have you ever bought a novel because of an author photo? What non-literary factors enter into your decision to buy or read a book? Can you point us to some notably handsome literary or artistic folk from the recent past? Who do you think is the best-looking writer now at work? I know this is a strange, perhaps even silly, topic, but it circles around my conviction that other-than-literary concerns often affect our reading habits.  Please share your thoughts or snide quips.

— Michael Dirda

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