There is a chapter that I had to take out of Leaving Atlanta where Octavia gets her hair pressed for the very first time. She thinks that she will get to a salon and pick her style out of a hair magazine, but her mom sends to an old lady’s kitchen. When Octavia complains about her experience the old lady– whose hair is so thin that it looks like spider webs stretched over a bowling ball– well, the old lady says, “Pretty ain’t easy.”
When I wrote that line, I was about twenty-five and I was mostly thinking about how much time I spent on my own hair, nails, and make up. But now that I am almost forty, I am thinking more about the politics of pretty.
Pretty, as you know, is a woman’s trap. There is the endless pursuit of pretty- and don’t let me get into the cultural stuff. We’ll let ToMo handle that with The Bluest Eye. And then, once you catch pretty, there is the problem of being too pretty and not seen as smart enough. But if you’re not pretty enough, there are consequences, too. It’s a trap and it’s hard not to end up gnawing off your own foot. An friend told me that for my author photo, I tend to favor “beauty over mood”, which in her view was a mistake. I didn’t even know what to do with that piece of information, or how a person would go about implementing it.
But the author herself isn’t the only factor is the conversation about pretty. There is the matter of the book cover.
I want a pretty book cover. For one, I really like pretty things. (My friends can testify to this.) BUT… I don’t want my book to be *too* pretty. I mean, I want serious review attention. And as always, my book deals with some not-so-pretty subject matter. (SILVER GIRL is about the secret daughter of a married man. “Illegitimacy” is a pretty heavy issue.) At the same time, it’s a delicious story about family, sisterhood, love, and scandal. And the word “silver” in the title just invites shiny and shiny is one of my favorite things. My friend, Lauren, told me that all cultures think that shiny things are beautiful. (So, ladies, slather on the lip gloss!) But do I really want you to think of lip gloss when you see my book. Well, I do if it makes you pick it up.
I don’t think that male writers go through this. (Poor Jonathan Franzen– he is my new shorthand for “privileged” now that Updike is gone to glory.) I really doubt that Mr. Franzen really had to worry about whether or not he or his book were too pretty/not pretty enough.
And while we are on the subject of gender here is another question– will a man read a pretty book in public? I guess that’s why we have the Kindle. And should I even worry about that?
One thing I have learned in the ten years I have been in publishing is that every issue that you deal with in your day to day life is magnified when you publish a book.
My publisher and I are still working on the book cover, wanting to strike the perfect note. Algonquin does great work– bestselling great work, so I know I am in good hands. But you know, this book is my baby and I want everything to be just right. Still, as always, the answer to every writerly problem is to just keep my head down, get writing on the next book. Control what I can control and just have faith.