In a more genteel time author photographs were found on the back of a book’s dust jacket, or a smaller one was on the back inside flap. If the book were a novel, short story or poetry collection, work of history or other scholarship, the author — whether man or woman — would usually be photographed posing before bookshelves, as if to advertise erudition. If the author was a man, he wore a tie and jacket, however threadbare. A woman would be perfectly coifed, and wearing a dress, or skirt and blouse. And in that genteel, politically incorrect time, these writers would actually live like writers, and might be pictured with a burning cigarette between their fingers, or even holding a cocktail.
The advent of “twelve step” programs over the last two decades has marked the decline of American Letters. The literary commissars now inhabiting the theory swamps of the academy not only write badly, but forswear alcohol and tobacco, get eight hours of sleep a night, worry about their carbohydrate intake and gulp down vitamin supplements. Yet blooming with health and vigor, they can’t seem to cut it in the world of Quality Lit. Ironically, the academy is witness to both good personal health and a dying American literary culture. After all, who else would think it important to write endlessly and turgidly on the lesbian motifs found in the work of Virginia Woolf or Willa Cather. But back to those book jackets.
Another aspect of American Literature’s decline is the modern author’s photo. Maybe the true worth of a contemporary book is noted in the absence of that photo on the cover. This bit of cultural narcissism hasn’t found its way on to the fiction lists yet (give it time), but the nonfiction rolls sometime show us more pretty faces than the covers of Vogue and GQ, Michael Moore notwithstanding.
Browsing in bookstores over the last few years you wouldn’t even have to read titles or writer’s bylines to know that this bipartisan chic community is populated by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil McGraw, Al Franken, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Chris Matthews, Michael Savage, and the aforementioned Mr. Moore. The pedagogic visage of George F. Will graces the front of his new collection of columns (not for the first time). Even the admirable William F. Buckley, Jr. regularly commits this sin of pride. This is an ingenious way to market books in a videotropic culture, of course, in that all these folks have paid their dues in innumerable green rooms.
The majority of books published nowadays aren’t by “writers,” per se, but celebrities: Hollywood stars, television talk show hosts, political pundits, ex-Presidents (also their wives and anyone else close to the Oval Office during their Administration), sports figures (many times tainted by scandal), and politicians lately retired or disgraced, or the young and ambitious ones about to embark upon their dismal careers. And they’re all on the covers of their books.
It’s hard to tell who’s responsible for all this photogenic preening. The self-help craze in the 1980s first gave us pictures of sympathetic-looking psychologists on book covers. Mr. Buckley, Mr. Will, and other public intellectuals early on embraced the idea. Rush Limbaugh twice landed his face on the bestseller lists in the early nineties. Maybe this is yet another trend that Mr. Limbaugh popularized even if he didn’t inaugurate it himself.
Some of the new literati — especially on the Left — don’t even bother to write their own books. The ghost trade is certainly flourishing as of late. For instance, Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right employed over a dozen Harvard Kennedy School of Government “researchers.” Hillary Clinton’s Living History credits three named ghost writers. More books than ever are being published in a country that has fewer and fewer readers, and those readers read books by writers who don’t write.
As for me, I have a more serious taste in literature. Having enjoyed Jimmy Carter’s thought-provoking poetry, I think I’ll take on his new novel (The Hornet’s Nest: A Novel of the Revolutionary War). Who knows? Maybe he’ll win another Nobel Prize.
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