An ill-advised gotcha quote has been circulating since this Entertainment Weekly piece about big advances for debut authors went up Monday afternoon. The piece was supposed to be about how the occasional enormous first-time paycheck is earned on the strength of the writing, purely, as in:

After reading just two pages of Emma Cline’s luminous novel The Girls — about the young women flocking around a Manson-like cult figure — Random House editor Kate Medina shut her door. “I said, ‘I’m not doing anything else. I’m not talking to anybody. I’m just reading this book,’” she recalls. And when she finished, Medina offered Cline a three-book, reported $2 million deal.

(As an aside, I’ll say that The Girls is the kind of book that it makes perfect sense to stake this sort of advance on; like The Virgin Suicides, it’s literary, but it’s got a mainstream subject that’s quite cinematic, as everyone loves a limpid, sensual group of teenage white girls that want to kill or be killed. Plug for The Girls! Out in June! I couldn’t put it down.)

Anyway, the piece was supposed to be about the sheer monetary power of “gorgeous writing.” But then, as EW said, “you can’t count on selling a book on the writer’s talent alone.” (Maybe they meant a book by a woman specifically, as they did not invoke the $2 million single-book advances that are awarded to the Garth Risk Hallbergs of the world, whose headshots do not seem to be quite as scrutinized.) Isabella Biedenharn writes, emphasis mine, about Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest and Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter (edited by Claudia Herr at Knopf):

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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.”

Oh. Sure! Or, rather, now that you said it, I’m less sure than before.

The surrounding factors in play here are no secret: the publishing industry is a difficult one; you have to pay a lot to lock down an in-demand book; the subsequent performance pressure put on that book and that author does not always play out. Also, being conventionally attractive is helpful in pretty much anything you do in this world, there’s that too—and this question of how much looks matter is definitely asked about women and to women primarily, which makes the whole thing worse.

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It’s mostly interesting to me to see this uncomfortable protest-too-much situation put so plainly. At the Toast, Mallory Ortberg wrote:

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.

She continued, “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.”

As Mallory notes, it doesn’t fit right to see such an ill-advised, off-color quote used in a sentence that’s ostensibly supposed to be pointing to change. It seems that that’s what happens so often in these discussions, like when people talk about Hollywood casting: the problem gets named; the problem gets displaced on to the audience; and the problem gets replicated, sometimes invoked even harder, all the same.


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