This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

July 16, 2001 — What if the only way a magazine would run a short story by Eudora Welty was if she agreed to an accompanying photo in which she posed as the protagonist of her story — a "'Sex and the City'–type woman," say, "wearing a bright red spaghetti–strap dress and sandals"?

What if Nadine Gordimer had to agree to a shot where she's wearing a low–cut blouse and "kneeling on crushed velvet"?

What if Philip Roth had to pose "staring blankly while holding a fat pug inside a Bulgarian restaurant"?

No self–respecting editor would propose such insulting childishness, of course, to such esteemed writers.

But in a move that's generated considerable comment — the first description above comes from a Washington Post report, the others from the New York Observer — the New Yorker just made three younger writers model those exact poses for its "Debut Fiction" supplement to its annual fiction issue: Jonathan "Bulgarian Restaurant" Safran Foer, Nell "Crushed Velvet" Freudenberger, and Erika "Spaghetti Strap" Krouse. A fourth twentysomething, Gabe Hudson, was made to pretend he was writing at a picnic table beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, with the Manhattan skyline behind him.

"They told me what clothes to bring," said Krouse. "I had to embody the main character, which made me uncomfortable because she's a bitch."

"It's the book jacket principle," New Yorker fiction editor Bill Buford told the Observer.

A principle that only applies to young writers, apparently — E. L. Doctorow, also featured in the issue, was not pictured along with his story.

"If anything, [the photos] contribute to the culture of authors being good looking or young in order to receive attention," Don Lee, editor of the literary journal Ploughshares, told the Observer. "That's the aspect I find of it that's a little bit disturbing."

Or, as reporter Linton Weeks put it in the Post, "Looks sell books. It's a closed–doors secret in contemporary American publishing, but the word is leaking out."

Leaking out because, if for no other reason, the rookies in the New Yorker "Debut Fiction Issue" often reap the kind of astonishing rewards that earn headlines. After he had a story — and his photo — in last year's issue, for example, David Schickler signed with the Dial Press for what was reported to be a $500,000 two-book deal. Z.Z. Packer, who also had a story in that issue, sold her story collection to Riverhead for $250,000.

But this year's issue generated an even more stunning deal. No sooner had the "Debut Fiction Issue" hit the stands than Nell Freudenberger — you remember, crushed velvet? — found herself in the middle of a "clamor for a collection of her short stories," as Inside magazine put it. She signed with New York's most powerful literary agent, Binky Urban of the ICM agency, and within days, Inside reports, had "received at least one pre–emptive offer of $500,000" for that collection of stories.

There was just one seeming hitch: the 26–year–old — who happens to be an "assistant" at the New Yorker itself — hasn't written any other stories. But nobody seemed to care. Publishers continued to make offers for the kind of money that not even the best short story writers — John Updike or Alice Munroe, say — would get for a collection.

All of which sadly proves what the Washington Post's Weeks says about looks selling books. There was, after all, little else to sell in this instance.

And all of which sounds nuts. Are an author's looks alone worthy of a half-million dolllar advance? Do people really buy books — or magazines — because the authors are young and skinny and resemble movie stars?

Well, they may get what they pay for if they do: Schickler's book — named after his New Yorker story, "Kissing in Manhattan" — came out last month and has been getting uniformly dreadful reviews.

But as the Schickler case also shows, people may not be as shallow as this kind of marketing takes them for — his book isn't selling near well enough to make back the phenomenal advance. In fact, according to Inside, the entire Barnes & Noble chain — which includes B & N, B. Dalton, and barnesandnoble.com — has sold only 1,222 copies of his book nationwide.

Of course, there are numerous other bookselling outlets, but B & N is the coutnry's biggest, and those stats may be telling. They may indicate how tired of this kind of marketing people have become, not to mention how devalued the New Yorker's imprimatur has become to savvy readers.

None of which is to say that Freudenberger's book, or Z.Z. Packer's, which isn't out yet, won't be good. And none of which is to say that reading first fictions isn't exciting in itself.

But certainly, this kind of marketing is an indicator of the major shift that has occured in the book business, where just a few short years ago editors still judged books by contents and not covers.

It's also a mark of how far the New Yorker has fallen. The fact that the magazine exploits the younger writers, but doesn't include a photo of Doctorow, speaks clearly to the nature of what's going on, and it's insulting to writers and readers, both.

You don't need a picture to see that.

Last Week’s Column: THE REAL WONDER BOY, PART TWO Part two of an interview with Chuck Kinder, whose book about his friendship with Raymond Carver was so long in the making it inspired one of his students, Michael Chabon, to write "The Wonder Boys."


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.