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Melanie Benjamin Headshot

How to Dress an Author

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I have a lurid confession to make.

I am addicted to fashion magazines.

Now, this would not be shocking were it not for the fact that I'm also an author, a female author of a certain age, an author of what some call literary fiction. There's a uniform for authors like me. You know what it is; I see it myself at lit fests and book signings, as well as in the movies. (Think Emma Thompson in Stranger Than Fiction; Nicole Kidman in The Hours.)

Dowdy skirt, wrinkled blouse or oversized sweater, unstyled hair. Flat, scuffed shoes. All giving the impression that the author has far more important things on her mind than how to dress herself; all giving the impression that the author tore herself away from her typewriter at the very last minute and threw on whatever was handy. (Also giving the impression -- probably far too realistic -- that the author's last royalty check was barely enough to feed the cat, let alone buy new clothes.)

I sometimes wonder if authors -- I don't know about readers -- tend to be suspect, and not a little resentful, of other authors who get the glam treatment. I'm thinking of Jonathan Franzen and his artfully-arranged scruffiness on the cover of a recent issue of Time. The man was also in Vogue, for heaven's sake! So literary folk begin to grumble: Sure, he's a bestseller because he photographs so well! It's all about how you look these days, not how you write. This grumbling also happens every time a woman writer gets the glam treatment in the Style section of the New York Times. Suddenly authors are whispering about the rumor that some publishing houses are asking that submissions be accompanied by head shots. (Personally I've never experienced this, but who knows? Stranger things have happened in publishing.) And there is much shaking of heads and wringing of hands and grousing that it never used to be like this. (Also, much forgetting that Truman Capote shook things up in the Fifties with his very sensual, very glamorous, author photo for the jacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms.)

So what do those authors who have never been featured in Time or Vogue do? Well, it's understandable that many take refuge in the traditional dowdy author armor, proud of their inability to differentiate between a skinny jean and a boot cut.

Not me.

I'll say, right now, that I have no expectation of ever getting a magazine cover. I do believe that my strongest asset, always, is my writing, and that's how it should be. However, I love fashion, too. I always have. I may listen to NPR and watch PBS, like all good authors do, but I am also addicted to Project Runway and What Not to Wear. I sometimes feel as if the ghost of Virginia Woolf is going to rise up and take my author card away from me, but I can't deny my passion for fashion.

I also feel as if it's my personal mission to make over every dowdy author I see. I haven't quite learned how to do this tactfully, despite the strong temptation. At a recent literary festival, I observed a female author wearing pantyhose with open toed, flat sandals. I had to leave the room, so strong was the urge to grab her by the shoulders and shout, "For the love of God, what is wrong with you? Nobody wears pantyhose in June! Now, a nice textured pair of tights in the fall, with a round-toed pump, well, that could work. Please, don't ever leave the house again without consulting me first, OK? Loved your book, by the way."

I just don't understand why some authors want to subject their readers to twenty-year-old Laura Ashley granny dresses and unkempt hair. Looking good isn't a betrayal of intelligence -- if people read our books, there's no reason to further convince them of our talent or creativity. Of course what we say is more important than what we wear or how we look, but that's the point. We've already said it once; no need to say it again through tweedy, pseudo-intellectual attire.

The truth is, Jonathan Franzen is on the cover of Time because he wrote The Corrections, not, despite what some want to think, because he's scruffily handsome and could be a model for J. Peterman.

I'm looking at my calendar right now. I have a lit fest in September, another in October -- a book tour in January. So I'm poring through the fashion magazines. Are pencil skirts still in? Can I get away with a thigh-high boot? (The answer to that would be no. I'm a five foot author, not a six foot model.)

Yes, I'm also practicing my talk about my book, going over my research on the Victorian era, photography, Charles Dodgson, Alice Liddell. I am proud of my knowledge, proud of my writing, and looking forward to discussing literary theory with authors and readers.

But I seen no good reason why I can't do so in bitchin' heels and a cute sweater set.