How to Pose Like a Man

New York Times · June 6, 2016

THE cover my publisher chose for my new novel, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, was indeed very beautiful, but more feminine than I would have ideally liked. It was mostly white, but all the way at the top were the gorgeous chin and red lips of a young woman. Not wanting to be a “difficult author,” I decided not to ask my editor to find a new cover. (She had already been kind enough to change it once.) Instead, I decided to counteract the cover by other means, starting with my author photo.

Until the overly feminine book-jacket problem arose, I had intended to use as my author photo a very flattering snapshot that my boyfriend, Richard, took of me eight years ago on the street in Paris at 3 a.m. I’ve been using it as my Facebook avatar for a long time, and I had been looking forward to putting it to professional use.

Now, changing plans, I made an appointment with the great author photographer Marion Ettlinger. On the phone, I told her I wanted to look stern, severe, strict — possibly standing against a white wall, maybe wearing a black cloak or something. “Like a headmistress?” she asked. “Yes, exactly!” I said, thrilled that she understood.

Two days before the shoot, I flipped through a book of Ms. Ettlinger’s photos to get a sense of how authors typically dressed for their portraits. I made a startling discovery: The male and female authors posed differently. The men looked simpler, more straightforward. The women looked dreamy, often gazing off into the distance. Their limbs were sometimes entwined, like vines.

I decided that I wanted to pose like a man. I also thought: No wonder books by women don’t get reviewed as often as those by men. Maybe it was the poses. I made a mental note to alert VIDA, the wonderful organization that tracks gender imbalance in the literary world with tallies that fill me with despair. Of course, I’m mostly kidding. I doubt that female author poses are to blame for the inequalities in how many books by men get reviewed in respectable publications versus books by women. But it couldn’t hurt to cover my bases and pose like a man anyway.

When the day came for the photo shoot, Ms. Ettlinger welcomed me warmly into her vast and gorgeous studio, and made me feel loved. But when I enthusiastically told her that I now wanted to pose like a man, a faintly troubled expression flitted across her face. I hadn’t realized how much preparation she puts into her photo shoots. Her whole approach to the session had been based on the assumption that I would be posing like a woman.

I mentioned that there was a photo of Jonathan Franzen that was really phenomenal. I couldn’t remember if she’d taken it. Using my iPhone, I showed it to her. She hadn’t taken it. Yes, it is very good, she said. My unspoken message to her was, please make me look vaguely like him.

Ms. Ettlinger took out a copy of her book and asked me to show her other man-poses I might want to emulate. She put Post-it notes on the good ones. I was very touched by her considerateness. Then we tried to have me replicate the poses. Turns out many were not as simple and straightforward as they looked: How did Junot Díaz get his arm here when his leg was there? My most successful pose ended up being a combination of the Daniel Mendelsohn and the Jonathan Dee.

Midway through the session Ms. Ettlinger said, “You look like a member of a gang of female mountain warriors.” I took this as a compliment. A short while later, she interrupted her photo taking to broach a difficult topic. “Did you happen to see X’s most recent author photo?” she asked. (X being the name of a famous female author whose identity I will keep private.) I said I believed I had. “Didn’t you think it was a little too stern?” she said, gently. “Don’t you think sometimes an expression can be a little too tight, to the point that it almost looks angry?”

I nodded and explained what had happened to my expression. About 90 minutes into our shoot, I had forgotten to focus on the thought I wanted to hold in my mind during the session. I believe that one’s thoughts can influence one’s appearance, and so for the shoot I had not only brought a suede jacket and a new shirt (stark white, it could easily have been worn by a headmistress); I had also prepared something specific to think about. In my thought, a book reviewer was sitting in front of a pile of books, trying to decide which ones to review. Coming upon mine, the reviewer looked at the cover skeptically, about to fling it aside, then flipped to the author photo and became confused. How could a book with a cover that beautiful have an author photo that ugly (in a good way)? The reviewer decided, right then, that my book deserved attention.

I admitted that the thought I was wearing had degenerated, without my realizing it, into a corrupted version of itself, focusing instead on the demoralizing statistics about female authors. This new thought must have given my features an angry look that had become impossible to ignore.

Some people feel that a book speaks for itself, that in the end nothing but the text matters — not the book jacket, not the genre the book is placed into, nothing. I respectfully disagree with this optimistic view. I don’t think books speak entirely for themselves. If they did, novels by women would not have been so continually overlooked.

In a passage in her novel The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt describes the Goldberg Study, a real experiment, first conducted in 1968, which found that female students evaluated an essay or a work of art more harshly when a female name was attached to it. The works were identical, but the students liked them better if they thought a man had created them. When the experiment was repeated 15 years later, this time with both female and male students, researchers found the same results.

Ms. Hustvedt sums up this soul-crushing reality exquisitely: “All intellectual and artistic endeavors, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof” stands a man.

I believe that this unconscious prejudice against women, which is extremely strong in the literary world, is present in almost everyone, including in those of us who object to it the most vehemently. I know that I even detect it in myself, sometimes. That’s why I didn’t want to make things even more difficult for my novel by saddling it with a feminine cover or girlie author photo.

I eventually wiped away my rotted thought, which suited my face as poorly as bad lighting, and we resumed our session. When it was over, I could tell there was something Ms. Ettlinger wanted to tell me. Finally, she said, “The photos will be exactly what you asked for.” This was clearly a warning. I knew she thought the photos might not look “good” in the traditional sense. They wouldn’t be “pretty” or “beautiful.” She said that she would not normally produce photos like these for a woman — she would find more graceful poses, search for more flattering angles. I told her that I understood and that I was grateful she’d been willing to honor my preference.

The portraits were, indeed, exactly what I had asked for. Using one as my author photo took some resolve. A friend told me her biggest concern was my hand, which I had deliberately folded into a fist. She said it looked huge in the foreground, as though I were about to punch someone. She said I should crop the photo so that the hand wouldn’t show.

When I sent the final image to the publisher, I included a note in caps above and below the photo, as well as in the body of the email: “IMPORTANT: DO NOT CROP.”