Thursday, November 17, 2005

What Began As A Heads Up on the Recipient of the National Book Award for Fiction Becomes a Weird Rant About How Author Photos are No Good

The National Book Awards were handed out last night and William T. Vollmann won the fiction award for an 800+ page tome entitled Europe Central. I had never heard of this guy until the interview Bookslut did with him this month. It's an interesting interview -- in it he says he wrote not one, but two adaptations of his own books in 10-12 hours. He got 50K for his trouble from some movie studio. Not a bad day's work. Bastard. But what he says about his intentions behind writing Europe Central make his novel, now National Book Award-winning novel, sound well worth reading.

Until, that is, I read a few sample pages of the book on Amazon. To me, it reads like a very clever, very well-researched writing savant wrote them. Like a slightly less reader-friendly Neal Stephenson. Another writer who produces fiction of this type is David Foster Wallace. Also a genius, his stuff is, for me, very hard to get through, not because the writing is too dense or hard to comprehend, but because he, like Vollmann, seems to be showing off that genius-level writing ability, and maybe doing it without
meaning to. These guys toss off phrases and brilliant metaphors that would be the literary highlight of another writer's whole novel. I'm sure that readers of serious fiction out there who have no ambitions of writing themselves (all 28 of them) can consume fiction like Vollmann's and Wallace's, happily and without envy -- just not sure that I can. I think Europe Central is probably one of those books that I would like to have read, but one I'm hesitant to actually do the work of slogging through. It's me, not them.

The author himself, his appearance I mean, is also problematic. In this photo, he looks like the uber-nerd everyone went to high school with. But not the nerd who wishes he was popular, but the nerd who marched to the beat of their own drum because every other drum he'd ever heard was way too dumb for him to march to. Judging by this photo alone, I doubt I'd have a good time reading 850 pages by this guy. But that's just from this author's photo.

There's been talk from people who talk about such things, that author photos should be abolished. I'm beginning to agree with them. People who pick up a writer's book are able to make too many wrongheaded assumptions about the story based solely on the author's appearance.

Vollmann (to the left, pictured with the writer of The House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubois III. This is a photo of Vollmann getting his National Book Award last night) looks much less like a hardcase, nerd-asshole in this photo. Partly because he's older and partly because he's attempting a smile, I think. He doesn't even look like the same guy, really. It's just that if a photo of a person is truly opaque and very little of worth can be gleaned from them (or any photo really), what's the point of printing one up on the back flap of a book's dust jacket?

I don't know what I'm really arguing about. I think I went so far down this tangent just because that photo of Vollmann as a younger man was so offensive to me. Of course, if I ever had the opportunity, I would demand an author's photo on my book. But that's because, deep down, I'm super vain. All right. I'm done.

1 comment:

JudgeHolden said...

Yeah I don't know what to say to this one either. I'll have a new one up soon.