Replay: Worth 10,000 words

Author portraits on the back of books are interesting to contemplate. They tell a lot about what the author (or perhaps the publisher) is trying to say about the book they want you to buy with your hard-earned money.

There are a number of different styles of author portrait. Some authors seem to eschew formal headshots at all and use pictures that seem to be taken by family or friends on vacation. These have a way of saying, “I’m just me. Here I am in the everyday.” Diana Gabaldon seems to like this approach, although the background sends a rather different message.


Others take professional headshots, but try to look very approachable, even humble, despite the fact that they surely must have huge egos to become as famous as they did. These photos have a quality that seems to say, “Thank you for even considering buying this book.”

Other studio shots go farther: despite the sitter appearing modest, they manage to convey an “I’d like to, aw shucks, thank the Academy” aspect to them, as does this shot of Judith McNaught.

Some writers opt to deflect more. They seem too busy to even look into the camera, or break their stride. For some reason this pose always irritates me. Who are you fooling? You know your snapshot was being taken, and you approved it for the book, so why pretend as though you don’t even care about showing yourself to the world. Jonathan Franzen takes this tack. He’s too concerned about what’s off to the left to be thinking about his readers, and surely this fame thing is hard for him to understand. Another way you can tell these people is they still wear those chunky nerdy glasses and have prominent sideburns.

(I’m sure he’ll say he was birdwatching and didn’t notice his picture was being taken.) This indifference-while-we’re-posing is taken to fabulous heights by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who for some reason feels he must turn his back on us in his portrait, giving him a God-on-a-pedestal quality.

Some appear to be caught in the act of thought-provoking conversation when the shutter clicked. They seem to be implying they are interesting people with a lot on their mind. That’s the impression I get from the great José Saramago.

These people also project that they don’t care about their appearance. Their hair can be mussed, their glasses from 1970. Or authors can appear the way Milan Kundera usually does, looking not very friendly or approachable. He’s possibly my favorite living author, but judging by these images, I’d hesitate before going up to him in public.

This Deborah Eisenberg photo is similar to a famous iconic image of Virginia Woolf, with whom Eisenberg has sometimes been compared. Coincidence, or intentional?

Woolf, Virginia

Here’s a really odd one. This used to appear on Isaac Asimov’s Doubleday books from the 1960s up to the early 1970s. It looks like the good doctor is hailing a cab in the middle of New York City. Unusual for a cover flap, and I’m not sure what it says about him, but it is different and distinctive.

Some people like to show themselves at work, even though everyone surely knows what they do already. Charles Schulz did this frequently with his portraits on his Peanuts books. Maybe they need to assure themselves they are working hard?

Suze Orman puzzles me. She seems to like posing in leather coats with big collars. Whether she’s trying to say she’s still hot at 60 or she just has a leather fetish (financial, um, discipline?) or thinks she’s sort of a “caped crusader” of money or just wants to convey wealth and luxury and thinks leather is the way to do it, I don’t know. I think the facial expressions are a little aggressive too. not to mention the overly-whitened teeth and honey baked tan.

Some portraits are intended to inform the reader how cultured the artist is, meaning if you buy his work you are just as cultured and blessed with superior taste, as this pose by Wynton Marsalis demonstrates.

And just the opposite…Mickey Spillane. Would you want to mess with this guy?

Mickey Spillane

Perhaps the best portraits are simply those that are natural and felt by their subjects. Twice I’ve seen pictures of my writer friend Susan Gabriel, author of the novel Seeking Sara Summers and the new The Secret Sense of Wildflower: both times they look so similar that I can only conclude this is Susan as she really is—no pretense, just real and caring. Kind of hard to argue with that, eh?




2 responses

  1. Hi John. So I’m reading away, enjoying your latest post and then, bam, there’s my mug! You’ve managed to make me blush…. :)


    October 10, 2011 at 7:26 am

  2. Pingback: Author Portraits | Susan Gabriel

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