|Detail from Mariana in the South by John William Waterhouse|
Look, I get that, in a recent BookRiot piece, Andrew Shaffer (Literary Rogues, Fifty Shames of Earl Grey: A Parody) is trying to be funny and when he cries “foul” on journalists who use physical description when writing about authors. Writes Shaffer:
Recently, the New York Times published a profile of literary agent Luke Janklow, drawing attention to his “eyes the color of cornflowers.” A separate Times Style section story on Dagmara Dominczyk (author of the recently released The Lullaby of Polish Girls) made note of her “sculpted lips.”
Such details always jump out at me in literary profiles in a funny way—maybe because I’m still a little bitter that the New York Times failed to mention the height of my cheekbones or my deep, cerulean blue eyes when they profiled me in the Style section last year.
Tongue-in-cheek or not, it’s something I’ve heard often enough in the book world that it seems worth discussing.
There are those who feel that physical description in an interview is meant to illustrate how attractive the author is… or is not. But, in most cases anyway, that isn’t it at all. Just like in the writing of fiction, physical description can be important. It’s another tool in the writing toolbox and it can be used to make the meeting between writer and subject more personal.
Description is a journalistic technique. It’s meant to make the meeting more immediate, more intimate, more real to the reader. It’s got nothing to do with cheekbones. It’s got to do with creating the feeling of being there. It’s not about more or less perfect. (Perfection is subjective, in any case.) It’s about evoking a moment.
And so, when I interviewed Margaret Atwood, I mentioned her stature. (She’s surprisingly tiny and her talent, reputation and presence are huge) and the fact that, in person, Emeril Lagasse was soft-spoken and somewhat reserved was important considering his brash public persona.
When you read an interview that I have written, I want you in the room with me. I want you to share what I have experienced. Physical appearance is not always a part of that. But sometimes I can share a detail that makes the person live for my reader. Isn’t that any writer’s duty? To use the tools available to make the experience live.
Meanwhile, back at BookRiot, Shaffer has us play a game where we connect the author with the correct Times descriptor. It’s silly fun… and fairly impossible to do with 100 per cent accuracy. You can try it here.