Too Young, Too Pretty: When Authors Are Criticized For Their Looks

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This week, Nell Freudenberger’s second novel, The Newlyweds hit shelves, and we’d say we’re pretty excited. The book itself is great, but the reappearance of the author reminded us of her past as a new kid on the block, part of that cyclical surge of young, attractive authors that always seem to take a lot of heat, especially from critics and other writers. After all, it’s not every author who is judged in the headlines to be “too young, too pretty, too successful,” but we like to think that with her newest novel, Freudenberger has pushed past that stigma to be taken a bit more seriously, and perhaps enjoyed with a little less jealousy. Others of her good looking brethren have done the same — or have fallen off the face of the planet. Click through to see our round up of a few authors that have been criticized, ridiculed, or simply condescended to for their looks or age, and how they’ve fared since. And no, we’re not going to get into the whole Franzen/Wharton thing.

Nell Freudenberger

In a 2003 backhanded-compliment-filled Salon article entitled “Too young, too pretty, too successful,” critic Curtis Sittenfeld expressed the all-too typical kind of rage-jealousy that gets directed at young, attractive authors, admitting that he and his friends hated her for things like her first author photo in The New Yorker (“it would be overstating it, but not by much, to say that you could see down her shirt”) and her choice to turn down a large book deal for a smaller one (“Meaning she was, like, virtuous and un-greedy on top of everything else — it was sickening!”). But really, it’s the fact that she’s good looking, “thought not to have paid her dues,” a Harvard grad, and supposedly talentless. Except that last part isn’t really true. And yeah, we’re jealous too, but we’re also glad to see that Freudenberger wasn’t a single, sexy flash in the pan, and that it’s looking like she’ll have a long career ahead of her.

Karen Russell

A more recent addition to the remarkably young-and-hot author club, Russell has been stirring up her own share of jealous/adoring fans. As the Observer observed “Never has a young author provoked such envy since that little minx Freudenberger.” Indeed, we thought Bill Ryan summed up the aspiring literati’s feelings after seeing her read last year: “She is 28, and I’m trying so hard not to be jealous or petty about the fact that she could, as the emcee noted, be on the New Yorker’s “30 under 40″ list twice in her lifetime. Goddammit.” Then again, her work, especially her most recent novel, Swamplandia!, has been so ridiculously well-received, almost across the board, that she’s not getting as much backlash as she might otherwise. We think she’s successfully skipped the buzzy phase and moved right on to “I’m so good you can’t question me” status. As she should be.

Marisha Pessl

How to talk about attractive young authors in any way without mentioning the stunning Marisha Pessl (even if Gawker only deems her “book hot”)? When Pessl got a big advance for her first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics the internet set off a-grumbling about her attractiveness. “It’s not that I am mocking Ms. Pessl’s appearance or writing ability,” columnist Sarah Weinman wrote, “just the publishing world’s almost masochistic desire to let attractive packages, so to speak, dictate their buying guidelines.” After the book’s release, however, most minds were changed (“Her talent and originality would draw wolf whistles if she were an 86-year-old hunchback troll,” Liesl Schillinger quipped), but in many ways she’s still the poster child for the hot-young-author phenomenon. Maybe that will change — but at the rate she keeps pushing back her second novel, Night Film (it was slated to be published about five times over by now), we might never know.

Jonathan Safran Foer

Finally, a cute guy on this list. When Jonathan Safran Foer was starting out on the scene, he drew commentary for his looks — though none, we should note, as bitter as the commentary foisted on similarly adorable ladies. Instead, the Washington Post compared him to Harry Potter, calling him “boyish but wise, an optimist drawn to tragedy, a whiz-kid with scars. A mere 28, he has the world-weary eyes of an old soul. Asked whether writers should be careful about repeating themselves, he says, “No one would ask that of J.K. Rowling!” And indeed he looks like Harry Potter when he says it: round glasses, stick-up hair, a career that seems to have erupted overnight — like magic.”

Though that seems to be an affectionate description, if somewhat condescending, Foer really took heat for his age, not his face. In an article at the New York Post , Harry Siegel attacks the boy wonder’s second novel in a way that seems suspiciously like attacking the boy wonder himself. “Foer, squeezing his brass ring, doesn’t have the excuse of having written the day or the week after the attack. In a calculated move, he threw in 9/11 to make things important, to get paid. Get that money son; Jay-Z would be proud. Why wait to have ideas worth writing when you can grab a big theme, throw in the kitchen sink, and wear your flip-flops all the way to the bank? How could someone so willfully young be so unambitious?” Well! Though we admit that Foer’s light has faded somewhat since 2002’s Everything Is Illuminated, we wouldn’t write him off just yet. After all, now that his first two novels have been made into big-budget Hollywood films, he has a lot of space to grow up in.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen, a hot young author, you say? Well, yes — sort of. Or more precisely: maybe. A few years ago, a new portrait of a teenage Jane Austen surfaced — the only oil portrait in existence, sold by Austen descendant Harry Rice and painted by Ozias Humphry. The painting was authenticated and went up for auction at Christie’s, but no one was having it. Well, that girl in the picture is much too cute to be Jane Austen. “The author of Jane Austen’s novels couldn’t possibly look like this, or they would be very different novels,” opined author and critic Clive James. “Jane Austen was not outstandingly beautiful or she’d be remembered as that… It’s definitely not in the character of the books to be about a beautiful woman. They are about a woman who is not beautiful yet who has other virtues. Jane Austen was the person you didn’t notice at the ball, but she noticed everything. That was her role.” Listen, James. Pretty girls can be just as observant and good at storytelling as the not-so-pretty ones. Austen’s legacy as a giant of letters isn’t up for question here, of course, but why is it so ridiculous that she have a legacy as a beautiful woman too?

Katherine Taylor

As Sharon Steel explains in the Boston Phoenix , “On the strength of the Spring 2007 FSG catalogue alone — which included a page about Taylor’s forthcoming book, as well as a photograph of her that was taken by her brother — the New York Observer’s Spencer Morgan was assigned a profile on Taylor. When they met, she says, he told her he hadn’t even read her book, but that his editor had told him to write the piece. In his “Farrar Thinks Pink,” Morgan began by asking whether the catalogue ought not to have come with a warning sticker: “Va-va-va-voom!” he panted, noting that Taylor’s “curvy bodice is simply straining against a clingy T-shirt” in the picture. He fake-checked himself to make sure that the catalogue was FSG, not Abercrombie & Fitch, and inquired slyly whether FSG, regarded as one of the last old-fashioned literary publishers, was pushing Taylor’s book in an attempt to foster their own Marisha Pessl phenomenon. They had T.S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, Michael Cunningham, and a total of 22 Pulitzer Prize–winning authors. Where, Morgan pondered, did someone like Taylor fit in?” Well, she won a Pushcart Prize and the McGinnis Ritchie Award in Fiction, but we’re still waiting for her second novel, which, we are assured, is forthcoming, five years later. We will suspend judgement until then.

Richard Mason

When Mason published his first novel, The Drowning People, when he was still an undergraduate at Oxford, the Times of London dubbed him “the current king of the hot young writers.” Cue the backlash — as Cassandra Jardine wrote, “In interviews, the Old Etonian in his first year at Oxford came across as a cocky young man with a foppish, Hugh Grant air. A star debater, sportsman, polyglot and academic, he described himself (though he now denies it) as an “obsessive achiever”. He said he expected to get a first, row for Oxford and party with debutantes by night. As for writing, he claimed to dash off 5,000 words a day. In short, he seemed the kind of precocious, privileged brat whom others long to see fall flat on his face.” Celebrity was unkind to Mason, however, and he retreated from the limelight as fast as he could. Luckily for us, he’s back — though not quite with the same press-fueled fervor. His most recent novel, History of a Pleasure Seeker, published in the US early this year, is phenomenal. Guess all that annoying achiever stuff was right all along.

Oscar Wilde

As the incomparable Maude Newton points out, this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon — authors have been getting criticized for their looks for decades, probably ever since they had looks to speak of. Though from photographs he doesn’t look to be more than commonly handsome, Wilde was a notorious fop, and loved dressing up in furs, silks and velvets, wearing outlandish hats and never leaving home without a boutonniere. Needless to say, some of the old guard simply hated him for it. Americans loved it though, obviously. And we still do.