I once did a gig at Chiswick Library. It was raining hard, and the librarians had very sweetly pinned my picture onto a blackboard, surrounding it with Christmas tinsel. Just before I went on, two old dears stood up and made their way over to the photograph, which showed me sitting on a London pavement in a leather jacket and jeans. One turned to the other and said ‘Well, he doesn’t look like an author to me,’ and they left, stranding me with an audience of four people and a dog.
It cracked me up at the time because it wasn’t something I’d ever thought about, but now that we have Facebook Timeline, which mingles authors’ social lives (and private pics that people sometimes really shouldn’t post) everyone now knows what their favourite author looks like.
I was once introduced to a writer acquaintance of my mother’s who was – there’s really no polite way of putting this – a wall-eyed hunchback with premium grade body odour. He told me he loved being a writer because ‘nobody cares what you look like’. But that’s not true. Not any more.
In Hollywood it’s not uncommon for writers to hire someone younger and prettier to go and pitch for them. One day I was contacted by a television production company. They said they wanted to film my work. They hadn’t read any of it, and they had hired a writer/director whose name would be on the project. They were sure I wouldn’t mind working for him as a televisual ghost writer. They told me he was incredibly brilliant.
I read some of the genius’s stories. They were awful – embarrassing, childish, dumb, clichéd, beyond boring. At our next meeting, the girls brought their genius in. I found myself faced with a ridiculously handsome six foot four surfer without an idea in his big blond head.
My stories were never filmed. The series was ridiculed by critics and cancelled after the airing of the second show. I began to realize that the producers weren’t entirely conversant with the adaptation of literature, but they knew a lot about pectoral muscles.
We tend to think of writers like Agatha Christie as being immune from this; weren’t they backroom workers who let their work speak for itself? Actually, that’s not strictly true. Christie was very fetching in her twenties, and photographs of her certainly helped to sell the early books. Which might explain why one would-be publisher of mine (who shall remain nameless) said; ‘Ideally you’d be young, female and black.’
Absurd, of course, but I’m pleased the brief nineties’ fad for sexy male writers didn’t really catch on – see Sebastian Junger, of ‘The Perfect Storm’, above (although Junger is a superb journalist).