Calvin Trillin, whose articles and columns have earned him renown as a classic American journalist and humorist, writes a weekly column for TIME.
A Picture Worth a Thousand Words
By Calvin Trillin
(TIME, Jan.12) -- It was a terrible year for physically unattractive writers of
literary novels. Even Al Gore didn't have such a bad year
compared with physically unattractive writers of literary
novels. In the publishing industry, the term "literary novel" is
used to distinguish serious attempts at fiction from novels
like, say, Love Story -- the trash classic that the aforementioned
Gore got in Dutch for suggesting was based partly on him. (The
mix-up, as I understand it, came from Gore's impression that he
was the model for the main character, Oliver Barrett IV, when in
fact he'd been the model for a Harvard Yard lamppost near which
the doomed lovers steal a kiss in Chapter 4.)
Although there is often one novel by someone like Updike or
DeLillo on the Best Sellers' list, most literary novels sell
modestly. But in 1997 news stories reported that many publishing
houses, under bottom-line pressure from conglomerate bosses,
were becoming unwilling to publish writers with modest sales at
Was that enough to discourage some overweight and pasty-faced
scribbler who's hard at work on a coming-of-age novel set in
Sandusky, Ohio, between the wars? Not in itself. He's fueled by
the unshakable belief that his novel, Hortense Be Thy Name, is
good enough to overcome any odds.
Then he reads that publishers seem increasingly interested in
photogenic authors. Would she make an alluring book-jacket
photograph? Would he be viable as the subject of a magazine
spread that concentrates on what he wears while chopping wood?
Toward the end of 1997, news coverage of the industry was less
about writers with modest sales (so-called midlist writers) than
about particularly attractive writers whose books had spent
months on the Best Sellers' list--beneficiaries of what the
critics might call the Hunk and Babe Effect.
Does the author of Hortense Be Thy Name give up? No. He plows
on. But he is beginning to envision the meeting he'll have with
his editor when the book is finally ready for submission, in
about the year 2000:
"I just have one suggestion to make," the editor says.
"Tighten the ending? Develop the character of the evil gym
teacher a little more fully? Trim the scene with Hortense and
The editor shakes his head. Then he says, "Spa cuisine. I think
if you're up to spa cuisine and a personal trainer, we might
have a chance."
The author knows that he has a jacket-photo problem that is
beyond help from spa cuisine. Dejected, he slinks from the
editor's office. The editor immediately goes into a meeting, and
the first book discussed is a literary novel by Al Gore. After
Gore's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination
petered out, mainly because of some problems that had started in
1997, he had turned to writing.
"How are the visuals?" someone asks.
"Well, he's about as animated as a lamppost," the art editor
says. "But he's still a good-looking guy, and I think we can do
something striking on the jacket with him chopping wood." 2000
turns out to be a good year for Al Gore. Physically unattractive
writers of literary novels have another terrible year.