Yesterday Entertainment Weekly ran a piece about debut novels with six-figure advances and why publishers are willing to take big financial risks on (relative) literary unknowns. The answer is, among other things, “because they believe they will make even more money later,” but the part that really leapt out at me was this:
You can’t count on selling a book on the writer’s talent alone—so while factors like being photogenic or savvy with social media won’t make or break a deal, they can definitely sweeten it. “I actually knew very little about [Sweeney] when I bought The Nest,” says her editor at Ecco, Megan Lynch. “I didn’t know that, for example, she knew Amy Poehler well enough to approach her for a blurb. That was a happy bonus.” Lynch stresses that while she would never “decline a book I loved because I felt like the author wouldn’t be able to handle an NPR interview, it would certainly affect how determined I might be: Am I going to hang in for another round at auction, or drop out?” Herr, for her part, acknowledges that an author’s appearance can affect an advance — “We look at all of that stuff” — but insists, “We would have paid her the same money if she weighed 500 pounds and was really hard to look at. That’s my firm belief [emphasis added].”
“We would have paid her the same money if she weighed 500 pounds and was really hard to look at.”
This is such a telling quote in so many ways, and says a great deal about what types of writers so many of the gatekeepers in publishing are looking for – often, although not in this case, unconsciously. The “if she weighed 500 pounds” part is so clearly a hyperbolic flourish, as if Herr was thinking, what’s something really outrageous, something that no great writer would ever be, to make it clear how much we don’t let someone’s looks influence the size of their advance, as if to say, Can you imagine a brilliant writer who also weighed 500 pounds. It’s the “or purple” of “I don’t care if you’re black, or white, or purple”: This would never happen, but even if it did, I wouldn’t care.
“We’d have bought this book EVEN IF – I don’t know – the writer were 500 pounds, as if that could ever happen.” But that could, and does, happen! People of that size both exist and write. They sometimes write tremendous and valuable things.
It’s easy, I think (and entirely appropriate!) to be angry with Claudia Herr as an individual for saying this, but this is less a case of one bad apple spoiling publishing for everyone than one person perhaps-unconsciously echoing a common, often unspoken, sentiment. Most likely Herr and others would not say to an interviewer, “I doubt fat people could write a book worth two million dollars,” and would in fact think of themselves as open-minded when it comes to size, but in an unguarded, unreflective moment, would throw out the idea of a 500-pound writer as an absurdity, as a mental exercise, rather than a plausible occurrence.
I don’t think, for what it’s worth, that the best possible outcome of this story is that Claudia Herr issues a public apology and is rejected or forgiven; I’m less interested in her personal culpability and more interested in critiquing and opposing the idea that anyone is “hard to look at.” This quote makes it fairly clear what constitutes “easy to look at,” and I have to imagine that a lot of aspiring writers reading this article who know they might fit into a “hard to look at” category would be discouraged from ever pitching an agent or editor.
What that quote promises is, at best, that editors and other publishing gatekeepers will do their best not to hold a writer’s appearance against them, and promises it weakly at that. “We would have paid her the same money if she weighed 500 pounds and was really hard to look at” translates roughly to: “We would not try to offer a fat writer less money for being fat,” which seems an awfully low bar. The effect is a little too self-congratulatory by half. While it’s not a direct comparison, I imagine reading a prospective employer proudly promising not to pay fat employees less money than their thin counterparts: “We promise not to violate the law when compensating people for their work”. It assumes, too, that the reader believes it’s normal or somehow instinctive to want to offer less money to a fat writer (or anyone “hard to look at”). A lot of writers who know that editors and agents think of their bodies as “hard to look at” knew what that sentence means for them and what they can expect in trying to get published.
“A body that is hard to look at”! What a phrase: it exhausts and it fascinates me. A body that is hard to look at. We promise to offer money, even to someone in a body that is hard to look at. We all know the bodies that are hard to look at. “Even if.” We promise not to hold your body against you. Everyone knows you’re hard to look at, but we promise not to mind. We notice it, but we won’t mind. It’s so clear what “easy to look at” means here! Think of the bodies that are easy to see in publishing: those are the bodies that are easy to look at. Writers who know their own bodies do not fit in that category, bodies that are too big, too dark-skinned, not able-bodied, not cis or cis-passing, too queer, not conventionally attractive, and any combination thereof, know what it means, and what being “hard to look at” will cost them.
Publishing is overwhelmingly dominated by white, heterosexual, able-bodied women. What bodies do they think are hard to look at?
It says a great deal how common this attitude is within publishing that Herr did not think twice about having this quote attached to her name, that she did not wish to be quoted anonymously. Everyone will know what I mean. She likely will end up offering a public apology of some sort, something like, “What I meant to say was that we would pay any author of any size the same amount if the book was good; I merely acknowledged we live in a world where women’s appearances are often counted strongly for or against them.” And that will be fine, in its own way, but it’s also an extraordinary opportunity for the people working in publishing to look at how easy or how difficult they make it for fat writers, for queer writers, for writers of color, for writers with disabilities (especially those with immediately visible disabilities), to stop seeing size as a setback or a deviation from the norm that must be overcome with some additional, extra-special qualities.
I also simply and fundamentally disagree that a body can be hard to look at. You may or may not like someone else’s body; someone else’s body may elicit a sense of discomfort within you, but that does not make them hard to look at. You’re not hard to look at.
No one is hard to look at.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.