FOR YEARS now, a horror story has circulated among English novelists. Generally attributed to America - that traditional test circuit for new terrors - the shakingly exchanged anecdotes speak of publishers insisting on inspecting a photograph of the author before committing to a manuscript. Sometimes, a related tale is told: of unbeautiful American novelists being forced to spend part of their advance on a handsome model to stand in for the dustjacket photograph.
Like the rumours of body-snatching and necrophilia that attended the early years of surgery, these reports from abroad are apocryphal but symbolic. They express the fear of the modern serious writer that publicity has become more important than creativity, that looks now matter more than books.
These tremors have intensified with the publication this week of a first novel called Green River Rising by Tim Willocks. An account of a riot in a Texas prison, the book attracted vast advances in Britain and America. In the past, the money paid would have been the basis of the pre-publication publicity. But Jonathan Cape, Willocks's UK patron, chose to send out advance proofs, posters and leaflets featuring a full-length portrait of the author, who is 6ft 6in and has shoulder-length gingery hair and green eyes. The material featured the line, 'He looks like an archangel but writes like a devil'.
This development has caused near-panic among the more rough-hewn members of the Writers Union. It so happens that Green River Rising appears at the same time as two other novels - Jeanette Winterson's Art and Lies and Candia McWilliam's Debatable Land - by writers whose careers raise intriguing questions about the relationship between publicity and the reception of a text. These three books allow us to consider complaints about a new literary tyranny of demeanour.
In the case of Willocks, Cape denied itself the well-tried PR pull of money and blood - Green River Rising is one of the most violent mainstream books ever published - and went for beauty. And, moreover, used it in a curious way.
Normally, book PR based on an author's looks will emphasise the match between face and page. In dustjacket photographs, Frederick Forsyth, with his cigarette in a holder, looks like James Bond while Jackie Collins, gold bangles at every extremity, has the air of a Hollywood party-goer: images which are proper heralds of their texts. With Willocks the pitch is, apparently, disparity: dreamboat writes car crash.
Our second exhibit is Jeanette Winterson. In a career of just under a decade, she has moved from darling of the books pages to devil. Winterson's early publicity centred on her weird CV - the subject of her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit - as the adopted daughter of Lancashire fundamentalist Pentecostalists. Her public profile was raised by the television adaptation of that book, and her next two titles achieved the rare hat-trick of high critical reputation, buoyant sales and large advances.
At this point, Winterson made the biggest PR blunders since Sir Clive Sinclair launched the C5 electric car. Asked to nominate the best book of 1992 in the annual Christmas picks, she chose her own (critically slated) Written on the Body. Invited by the Sunday Times to select the world's greatest living novelist, she again looked no further than home. Winterson's publishers and friends bravely insist that these comments were 'mocking the literary establishment'. If so, the joke has backfired. Winterson's playful egomania, her sardonic self-absorption, have encouraged ad feminam reviewing, profile writing and, even, reading. Opening Art and Lies, you cannot help wondering if the writer has already submitted it for the Nobel prize for literature.
Candia McWilliam - our third example - has made the reverse journey: from devil of the books pages to half-darling. Like Tim Willocks, she was initially sold in 1988 on exoticism: long blonde hair, strange name and a racy biography, which included marriage into the aristocracy. If a Willocksian sales tag had been attached to pictures of McWilliam, it would have to have been: 'Looks like a toff and writes like one'.
McWilliam's novel A Case of Knives was written in a kind of top-drawer drawl, and its vocabulary was aristocratic, showing the writer on terms with whole families of nouns and adjectives which were not in general circulation. It was soon a case of knives out for this book and for its successor, A Little Stranger. McWilliam subsequently disappeared from view for a number of years, and this seems to have worked. Her third novel, Debatable Land, has achieved a kind of PR redemption. Critics have reported that the vocabulary has gone straight; or, anyway, straighter. Profiles have generally concluded that McWilliam is not as gruesome as she was painted. Her work has overcome her image: the opposite of what has happened to Winterson.
Two general conclusions can be drawn. The first is that unusual looks or a bizarre past will greatly raise the attention, sales and advances available to a new writer. This leg- up will, though, almost inevitably become a dead leg when the books, particularly later ones, are reviewed. Second, if a writer is going to cultivate a public image, it had better be as unliterary as possible. Martin Amis and Norman Mailer were marketed like sports heroes or film stars rather than as the serious literary guys they are underneath.
When Jeanette Winterson's ironic public preening was misunderstood as mad arrogance, her youthful image as a poor Lancastrian immigrant to Eng Lit gave way to the ruinous one of a Hampstead pseud; a comic writer gained the tag of humourlessness. If Max Clifford took on Winterson now, he would surely arrange photo ops on the terraces at Old Trafford and leak to the papers the novelist's twice-daily view of Neighbours.
But if authors end up in a painful trap, it is because publishers are already caught. Viking recently released a novel by Jonathan Coe called What a Carve Up]. It received the most uniformly warm reviews for literary fiction in journalistic memory. Yet there were no newspaper interviews with the author, and the book has not yet reached the bestseller lists. Is this because Coe is a rather quiet book reviewer who lacks the distinction, for publicity purposes, of being a 7ft albino or a former brothel-keeper in Buenos Aires?
On balance, Tim Willocks is lucky to have height, hair and eyes on his side as he sets out on a literary career. But PR history suggests that, very soon, his body will be turned against the body of his work.
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