Many external factors enhance a literary reputation. It always helps to belong to a group: Bloomsbury, Lost Generation, Algonquin Round Table, Auden-Spender-MacNeice, Angry Young Men. It’s also quite useful to have your work censored and suppressed, oppose tyrannical regimes, serve time in a psychiatric hospital or prison, suffer a mental breakdown, commit suicide or die young. Physical appearance also has a powerful influence on literary reputations.
In “A Prayer for My Daughter” (1921) W. B. Yeats, knowing that handsome people have distinct advantages, still warned about the dangers of vanity and egoism of comeliness:
May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end.
I would argue that homely authors would have a greater reputation and handsome writers a lesser, if they had not been cursed or blessed by their appearance. Readers are naturally drawn to works by attractive writers. In Advertisements for Myself, Norman Mailer insisted that the appearance and character of the author must match the work: “how silly it would be if A Farewell to Arms, or better, Death in the Afternoon, had been written by a man who was five-four, had acne, wore glasses, spoke in a shrill voice, and was a physical coward.”
The appearance of authors—often on a dust wrapper photograph or even an indelible snapshot on the back of an old Penguin paperback—suggests the quality of their work. The tallest writer was Wolfe; the shortest, Pope; the fattest, Chesterton; the thinnest, Emily Dickinson (I once saw, at a conference in Amherst, Massachusetts, a Mormon bishop taking one of her dresses off a mannequin and secretly struggling to get into it). My admittedly subjective judgment would include, among the homeliest, obese and sometimes even disfigured writers: George Eliot, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell, Stevie Smith, Lillian Hellman, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor; Johnson, Goldsmith, Gibbon, Swinburne, Verlaine, Dreiser, Maugham, Forster, Strachey, Sinclair Lewis, Babel, Brecht, Connolly, Sartre, Larkin, Baldwin and Ginsberg.
The handsomest list would include: Virginia Woolf, Hilda Doolittle, Katherine Mansfield, Edna Millay, Anaïs Nin, Martha Gellhorn, Mary McCarthy, Iris Murdoch, Anne Sexton, Caroline Blackwood, Sylvia Plath, Edna O’Brien, Susan Sontag and Gjertrud Schnackenberg (Millay, Nin, Gellhorn, Sexton and Sontag used sex to advance their careers); Byron, Ruskin, Jack London, Wyndham Lewis, Brooke, O’Neill, Fitzgerald, Joe Ackerley, Hemingway, Nabokov, Isherwood, Spender, Bellow, Arthur Miller, Kingsley Amis, Merwin, Gunn, Hughes and Chatwin. But Hemingway, in a caustic comparison, wrote that “Scott looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty. . . . The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.”
Though unattractive women are taken more seriously than great beauties, neo-Platonic authors believed that beauty reveals inner goodness and ugliness suggests evil. (This idea still prevails in popular movies where narcissists oppose outcasts, and villains are marked by fat flesh and bad skin.) Film stars and models graced with beauty seem like higher beings who symbolize the perfection of the human race. They arouse our sympathy, focus our attention and animate our minds. We idealize them, and their godlike qualities suggest a kind of immortality. Beauty is fragile and vulnerable, and needs to be nourished and protected. But it is also associated with youth, happiness and the promise of life. It gives aesthetic pleasure and is sexually exciting. Physically attractive authors make their work seem more appealing. Their lovely faces provide tangible evidence—beyond their creative talent—that they are superior beings, have become sacred icons and are themselves a work of art. As Keats wrote in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “ ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Jeffrey Meyers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has recently published Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008), The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (2009), George Orwell: Life and Art (2010)—his fifth work on Orwell—and John Huston: Courage and Art (2011). Thirty of his books have been translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents. In 2012 he gave the Seymour lectures on biography, sponsored by the National Library of Australia, in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. A new post will appear every day this week.