REMEMBER Maws (model, actress, whatever)? Meet the Wamms (writer, athlete, male model). We're not used to authors - certainly not male ones - being so aggressively marketed in terms of their pulchritude, although it's no secret that it helps if a writer is not actually a troglodyte. Nowadays strategic pics flop out of press releases and review copies if the author is even half-way decent-looking. This is not an entirely new phenomenon; before the florid genetic curse of Kingsley took its toll, Martin Amis was fted for his supposed likeness to Mick Jagger. What's new is the plea "Read this because he's gorgeous" as publishers compete more and more hysterically for attention.
We're living in an era when even poets, those legendarily unappetising beasts, have to slip into black Lycra all-in-ones and be photographed in Vogue or turn up at readings and schmooze. The new emphasis on good looks is a by-product of the celebrity novel: it's no coincidence that of comedy duo Newman and Baddiel, it was the allegedly handsome Newman who first burst into print with the stillborn Dependence Day; though publishers LittleBrown are now following up with an effort from the short, plain, bespectacled one. Michael Palin, whose first novel is out this month is, one could say, the most attractive of the Pythons - and though I'm sure Rupert Everett's fictional successes have everything to do with his sparkling prose style and nothing to do with his looks, I don't know that anyone has yet approached Timothy Spall with a two-novel deal.
But is the new batch of male novelists all style and no substance? Matthew Parkhill, the modelling, fencing intellectual paragon described above, is ambivalent about the marketing of his poise rather than his prose. "It's not the way I would have chosen," he says carefully. "But . . . that's their job, I just leave them to it." Parkhill's challenging debut And I Loved Them Madly needs all the help it can get, given that it records a summer spent caring for the maddening, incontinent, abusive guests of an American summer school for the mentally handicapped. It's a peculiar debut: lengthy, fierce, combative, and with an initially unprepossessing narrator; all seemingly a mile away from the elegant figure of its author.
Dressed all in white, Parkhill has a deep tan, polite manner and the air of one who has for the moment mislaid his tennis racket. He is a genuinely impressive, if faintly unreal figure, as he talks unswankily about his Cambridge days, fencing training with the French National Team, teaching at the University in Paris. The only thing he's keen to play down is the modelling; the only photos he displays are a rather unflattering set taken by a friend. Finally, he confides, "I'm hoping to use the publicity I get for the novel to attract more modelling work. They like that kind of thing in Paris."
Thomas Beller's publishers, LittleBrown, were so delighted with their new American catch they were throwing parties on the back of a single, rather politically correct story about a sparky office worker who is sexually put in his place by the fat, female receptionist. Beller is much more vivid and less soulful than his picture indicates: tall, dark and Hughesian, he has a laugh that could rip your earrings off.
He, too, is gruffly ambivalent. "Oh God, you didn't use that one," he groans to the publicist. "The one where I look so soppy?" Handsomeness aside, he's actually had rather a rough time in his native New York, where he starved, and worked as a bike messenger and finally in a bagel factory before his big break. He tells a great story about being locked in the fridge with the cream cheeses when he was supposed to be meeting Tina Brown of the New Yorker.
What's most surprising about the way these men are being marketed is that they are located squarely in the hitherto sacrosanct field of literary writing, where talent is supposedly all.
Much more upfront about his charms and their value is Tim Geary, not only a genuinely successful ex-model, but also a cheerfully commercial writer. His first novel, Ego, was a blockbuster about six hunks in search of a multi-million-dollar modelling contract, interleaved with Geary's own sly observations on the business.
Geary, like Parkhill, seems to have had a charmed life: "From day one, everything fell into place. People say, `you don't deserve that', but there's nothing you can do. You can't go out of your way to be unlucky." A faint sheen of glamour still clings to his sharply structured face.
After a six-year career, he settled in New York and signed up at writing school. "Modelling had given me up. You have to re-invent yourself constantly: shave your head, grow it long, go to the gym. I didn't re-invent myself from day one! In the first professional picture ever taken of me, in 1985, I was just staring into the distance. Six years later, there's Tim, still staring into the distance. Then my hair fell out, so God re-invented me and not very kindly," he laughs. The only vanity he'll admit to now is "writer's vanity - the assumption that whatever interests me should interest everyone else."
Were his looks an asset in getting a book deal? "I wish I could say I'd been round 19 publishers and pleaded with them, but I didn't." His sister was a neighbour of a Hodder editor, and Geary hot-footed it round with his manuscript, which had already been judged by an agent as a queasy mix of Danielle Steele and Martin Amis. "She promised it wouldn't just go on the slush-pile." Here, perhaps, a flash of those preternaturally clear grey-blue eyes had its effect. But there were some hitches in the marketing of the supposedly dreamy ex-model, as Sheena Walshaw from Hodder & Stoughton remembers: "I took him on a tour to meet the booksellers, but I think people were expecting the hunk on the cover of Ego. Tim is a very attractive young man, but he isn't . . . strapping, exactly, and I think they were rather disappointed."
Geary's next book, Spin, is more complex, less autobiographical. Set in America, the story intertwines the showbiz of daytime soaps with the machinations of the spin doctors on Capitol Hill.
In the end, these are not talentless "himbos", fielding ghost-written novels la Campbell, but rather earnest achievers. "I really don't believe that a worthwhile novel wouldn't get published just because the writer wasn't good-looking," says Geary.
"On the other hand, I have heard rumours of an agent who now asks for photographs to be sent along with manuscripts."Reuse content