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Pundits & Prose

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 magazine

(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 all.

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 horse?"

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.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: January 12, 1998

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