The inverse principle of author hype and literary success

The greater the sales, the smaller the bio. Just check the cover.

February 28, 1999|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,Sun Staff

You can't judge a book by its cover, but you still might make the kind of snap decision that will lead you to buy it.

That's the thinking of publishers, who see every one of a book cover's components -- title, design, blurbs from critics and other writers -- as marketing tools. Nothing happens by accident on the cover of a book, not even the author's biography. (Granted, many author photos appear to have happened by accident, but that's a topic for another day.)

The author bio presents an obvious problem for first novelists: They have no track record. Increasingly, this has been seen as an advantage in publishing -- no track record means no sales record. But it can be a challenge for publishers who are trying to sell the book. What do you say about the first-time writer?

Consider Jenny Siler, author of the much-praised "Easy Money," recently published by John Macrae/Holt. Siler has no writing credits, but she has serious street cred for a literary thriller writer:

"Twenty-seven-year-old Jenny Siler has worked as a forklift driver, a furniture mover, a grape picker, a salmon grader, a tutor to deaf students, a waitress, a sketch model, and a bartender. She lives in Missoula, Montana."

Never mind that the bio was almost instantly anachronistic; Siler, inexorably, has turned 28. "That's very good," an editor from a rival publishing house says of her bio. "It makes you want to buy the book."

But an insurmountable problem is that most writers have never picked grapes, merely imbibed them, and the only thing they've graded are English composition papers. What to do?

Same thing you do with that first resume: Pad.

Early author bios seem to swell in inverse proportion to the writer's reputation, then shrink as the body of work grows.

Other patterns emerge. Writers do not merely attend schools, they are "educated" at them. They list their residences, perhaps because it's the one thing every writer has. (If an author "divides" time between residences, assume he's in the 42 percent tax bracket.)

Sometimes, authors even list their birthplace. Birth dates? These tend to disappear on the far side of 35, although John Updike and Anne Tyler bravely continue to share theirs (1932 and 1941, respectively).

Author bios also may hint of heartbreak and tragedy. Tyler's "A Patchwork Planet" is the first book to appear since the death of her husband, Taghi Modaressi, who was invariably mentioned in her previous bios. Salman Rushdie, for obvious reasons, no longer lists his place of residence.

But, in general, a less-is-more approach appears to be a status symbol among a certain class of novelist. Herewith, a sampling from the bios of a few noted writers:

Philip Roth

* Early work: "When She Was Good," published 1967.

Bio: "Philip Roth was born in Newark, N.J., in 1933, and was educated at Bucknell University and the University of Chicago. Goodbye Columbus, a novella and five stories, was published in 1959, and received the National Book Award in 1960. A novel, Letting Go, was published in 1962. Mr. Roth's stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Commentary, Harper's and Paris Review, among other periodicals, and have been reprinted in Martha Foley's Best American Short Stories anthology. His story "Defender of the Faith" won second prize in the O. Henry Prize Story Contest of 1960."

(This raises the question: Who won first place?)

* Mid-career: "The Professor of Desire," 1977.

Bio: Having achieved best-sellerdom with "Portnoy's Complaint," Roth opts for no bio. (This appears to have been something of a trend at this time, as Tyler, Updike and Norman Mailer also dropped bios from their books written in the late '70s and early '80s.)

* Most recent: "I Married A Communist," 1998.

Bio: "With his last four books, all published in the 1990s, Philip Roth has won America's four major literary awards. Patrimony won the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award, Operation Shylock the 1993 Pen/Faulkner Award and Sabbath's Theater the 1995 National Book Award. His most recent novel, American Pastoral, received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. I Married a Communist is his twenty-third book."

(Well, perhaps one should brag just a little ...)

Jay McInerney

* Early work: "Bright Lights, Big City," his first novel, published in 1984.

Bio: "Jay McInerney was born in Hartford, Conn., and has lived in London; Vancouver, British Columbia; western Massachusetts; Tokyo; and New York. A graduate of Williams College, he has held fellowships from Princeton and Syracuse universities. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, the Chicago Tribune, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares."

* Mid-career: "Brightness Falls," 1992.

Bio: "Jay McInerney is the author of Bright Lights, Big City (which he adapted for the screen), Ransom, and Story of My Life. He lives with his wife, Helen Bransford McInerney, in New York City and Nashville, Tennessee."

* Most recent: "Model Behavior," 1998.

Bio: "Jay McInerney lives with his wife and their two children in New York and Williamson County, Tennessee."

(No more screenplays?)

Martin Amis

* Early work: "The Rachel Papers," published 1973.

Bio: "Martin Amis, the son of novelist Kingsley Amis, was born in Oxford on August 25, 1949. He was educated at thirteen different schools in England, Spain and the United States before entering Oxford University, where he secured a First Class Honors degree in English."

(Amis, a Virgo. Who would have guessed?)

* Mid-career: "London Fields" 1989.

Bio: "Martin Amis is the author of The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, Success, Other People: A Mystery, Money, Einstein's Monsters and London Fields. He lives in London."

* Most recent: "Heavy Water," 1998.

Bio: "Martin Amis lives in London."

At this rate, the next Amis work will simply say: "Martin Amis lives."

Laura Lippman lives in Baltimore. She was not educated anywhere, although she attended Northwestern University. She has never done anything remotely interesting, which frees her up for such important hobbies as studying author bios.

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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