Do You Really Need To See The Author’s Mugshot?
Writers are a bunch of scruffbags. You should see us gathered together in a pub or restaurant – we look like tramps sheltering from the rain. The underrated, wonderful novelist Keith Waterhouse once said; ‘I have not looked in a mirror for the last forty years.’ And what’s going on with George R R Martin here? Did he just kill someone? (Oh, yes, sorry, he killed everyone. EVERYONE.)
Being a bit of a clothes-horse, I have always attempted to buck this trend. It has backfired in the past, most notably in what was laughingly referred to as my ‘Star Trek Years’, and I do still make the odd spectacular error of judgement. In Latvia I purchased a singularly unsuitable hat because my ears were about to snap off, and there was that floor-length cream camelhair coat that made me look like an unsuccessful Hungarian gangster.Last weekend I was in Denmark, where I bought leggings – what was I thinking of, beyond the fact that it was freezing?
But you have a choice; make your own image or trust publishers, who are notorious for using the wrong shots. Gone, though, are the days of leaning-the-fist-on-the-chin or smoking a pipe. Now we all have to look like we’re fun. This isn’t always a good idea. I once gave a reading at a library where the audience of six was depleted to four after two old dears got up and walked over to my photograph, pinned by the staff on a blackboard. ‘Well,’ said one to the other, ‘he certainly doesn’t look like my idea of an author,’ and they left.
Working at home you have no peer esteem and therefore make mistakes. It’s like not owning a mirror. Barbara Cartland was famously only ever photographed from the front with a blinding spotlight on her face to blast away the wrinkles, but even that couldn’t improve her words. She always ended up looking like something off a very old box of chocolates found on the top shelf of a poorly frequented tobacconist’s shop.
Now I’ve hit the age where personal style can no longer be defined by clothes. Recently I saw a staggeringly bad British film (which cannot be named as it’s still under a press embargo) in which Colin Firth dressed a young thug in Savile Row clothes to make him a gentleman. The backward-baseball-cap-wearing lout suddenly looked fantastic in formalwear, although as an actor he had a head start in the transformation process. Weirdly his new sartorial savour faire instantly turned him into Noel Coward, as if his clothes could magically improve his diction rather than education.
The other night I was going to a party in Kensington, so I dressed up a bit, foregoing my usual T-‘n’-jeans look for a very nice Bikkenberg jacket and a black woollen overcoat. The effect on other people was so astounding that I may well make formality ‘my look’ from now on, if I can get away with it. But why should writers even care? We’re backroom boys and girls. Now we’re all told by our PRs that we need social media to thrust ourselves forward and step from behind the pages of our books and websites, covertly weaving in subtle plugs to buy our ‘product’.
People are smarter than PRs realise, and resist being told what to do. I appeared on a panel event recently where a famous author who shall be nameless insisted on describing her own novels in detail instead of dealing with the panel questions we were there to answer. By doing so, she came over as a pretty selfish, horrible person. If you were there, you’ll remember who she was.
And here’s the thing; if your words are good enough to stand scrutiny, readers will get a strong idea of who you are – you don’t need to promote another image when you can be found within your prose, if anyone wants to look a little harder. Indeed, good writers finds it impossible to entirely hide behind their books. If it was up to me, this would be my author shot.