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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 43, Dated 29 Oct 2011
    CULTURE & SOCIETY  
    OOMPH

    Should Writers Be Sexier Than You?

    Yes, they should, says Karan Mahajan, to reclaim their place as fabulous cultural heroes. He recounts how he posed almost naked against the current plague of modesty

    Annie zaidi

    Annie Zaidi
    Author of The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl (co-author), Known Turf and Crush

    Shot By MS Gopal

    View Slideshow

    RECENTLY, I was called on to do something I have never done in my brief career as a writer: pose, near naked, for a magazine. No — the magazine was not trying to sell the brand of boxers I was wearing (the boxers were hidden from view as I squatted in a steel tub, creating an illusion of total nudity). Nor was I some sort of extraordinary photographic scoop that the magazine’s editors had been trying to lure into nudity with everfattening wads of cash (I did the shoot for free). Rather, the goal of the magazine, in getting me to pose in a slightly compromising position, along with a dozen other writers — including Rivka Galchen, Stephen Elliott, Tao Lin, and Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi — was simpler: to present writers as sex symbols. Most of us were clearly in need of help in this department, so the question of payment didn’t arise. We really should have paid the magazine.

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    Mridula Koshy
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    The magazine behind the project, Canteen, explained its goals to a newspaper as follows: “Writers have lost their place as cultural heroes. But why can’t they at least try to compete with popculture stars on the same terms? Let’s promote novelists as sexy and fabulous! Insist that the PEN Award require a turn on the catwalk! Hold the National Book Awards on a sliver of sand populated by buxom models in horn-rimmed shades; let the champagne pop for the cameras, as Oxford tweed gets wet on Temptation Island!”

    Despite the ironic exclamation points, I thought these were interesting questions — and it was all the more interesting that someone had thought to ask them in the middle of a recession. It was like a writers’ sex stimulus plan. Why, I wondered, reading the e-mail, did writers not pose more often for magazines? Once upon a time, writers had been sex symbols. I’m thinking of first-rate braggarts like Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, but also of the more dissipated aristocratic types — F Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. The French intellectuals: Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus. These people did not (as far as I know) pose for magazines, but they exerted a great influence on popular style. When you smoked, you picked up the brand that Sartre was puffing at Deux Magots in the Left Bank. You wore your hair like Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises and maybe talked like her too. And when you were bored, you gunned your scooter on Mathura Road and pretended you were pulling a Kerouac.

    Writers have obviously been supplanted by film stars and musicians in the years since. But I find it odd that little effort has been made by writers to redress the shift. If anything, much effort appears to be expended in the opposite direction. In New York, where I live, there is a plague of modesty afoot.

    Authors present themselves as bright, sincere, humble, hardworking people, like Republican presidential candidates. “It’s all just revision and craft,” one says. “I couldn’t have done it without my mom,” offers another. “My three years of MFA were the best of my life and I would do them again if I could,” says a third. (I myself have done the gushy acknowledgment thing and plan never to do it again.) Even the writers who produce the most glamorous, stylish novels — Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Zadie Smith, the late David Foster Wallace — tend to exaggerate their professorial intensity rather than their arty lifestyles. (Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie remain exceptions and are often chided for it in the press. Only the Chilean phenom, Roberto Bolaño, is allowed to be glamorous, and that is because he is dead.)

    WOULD IT hurt if writers were a little more sexy and mysterious? If they showed up in three-piece suits to all their events, brawled drunkenly, and pretended to not write in their pajamas and Google themselves constantly? Each writer, whether he or she admits it or not, is already involved in the glamour game — a game that begins when you get your author photo taken and write out your bio. What’s the right ‘look’ for you? Is it how you appear in the company of your favourite dog — friendly, goofy, offguard? Is it how people suppose you look as the author of a serious novel? Or is it something completely off-topic — some unknowable dishevelment? Or just whichever angle hides your big nose? I have a friend, a successful young American writer, whose author photo for her first book presents her as some sort of fey model. Needless to say, she looks nothing like the photograph (though she is attractive). Interestingly, when her second book came out, I noticed that she had reverted to a homelier, less threatening, and more realistic photo. Now secure in her fame, she no longer needed the reinsuring boost of glamour that had been recommended for her the first time around.

    Authors present themselves as presidential candidates. Even those who produce the most stylish novels exaggerate their professorial intensity

    This pattern — moving from glamour to less glamour — seems emblematic of the lives of today’s writers. You get into writing at least partly for the glamour (I was surprised to learn that the novelist Akhil Sharma, a socially awkward person who claims to be afraid of the dark and acts like he is also afraid of people, became a writer because he wanted to see the world ala Hemingway); for years you struggle, projecting an outward image of glamour and strength even as you stew internally with insecurities (this is why some writers drink and brawl); and then, when success finally arrives you do away with the glamour, as if to say: being a writer is glamorous enough.

    And perhaps it is. Perhaps if you are a serious writer, being constantly featured naked in magazines would detract from your seriousness. But what if such exposure gave you a new aura, a new visibility, a new in with the readership? What if glamour, so studiously eschewed by the contemporary writer, actually helped sell books? And what if, as writers invaded magazines, a strange circularity set in — and people learned to think of writers as public figures? What if they bought brands that writers hawked in glossy ads? What if, in this science fiction universe I am proposing, writers actually mattered in these ways?

    WHEN I got the e-mail from Canteen magazine last November, I was happy to go along. It seemed like a fun assignment, without the usual pressure of putting one’s writing talent on the line. (This is one of the great joys of giving yourself over to experts. You can be far more glamorous when you don’t have to worry about quality.) The photographer Boru O’Brien O’Connell and I traded e-mails, brainstorming the shoot. After much discussion, Boru, who has photographed Kanye West, announced in his prophetic way that I would be wrapped “in a blanket burrito on the floor… with a sexy girl”. I couldn’t disagree.

    On a subzero day in January, I strip - ped down to my boxers in a dilapidated industrial studio in Brooklyn. It was dingy and dark. The model came in and was soon in not very much as well. She was a climate change researcher and we chatted amiably about global warming as Boru moved us around the studio like mannequins: in the tub, out of the tub, here by the potted plant. Soon we were wrapped post-coitally in a sheet, smoking cigarettes like two characters in a Godard movie. I kept grinning like an idiot. It was with that expression that I was ultimately captured for the magazine.

    On the day of the issue release party — which was in a gallery with the photos arrayed on the wall — I tried to melt into the crowd. The model was there too and we watched for the reaction of people as they came by to look at our photograph.

    Soon we were wrapped post-coitally in a sheet, smoking cigarettes like two characters in a Godard movie. I kept grinning like an idiot

    “No one recognises us!” she said. I tried to play it cool. “Maybe they think you’re the writer,” I said. “Karen Mahajan, not Karan Mahajan.” Mostly, I felt embarrassed about the Saul Bellow quote I had picked to accompany the photo — Bellow, once a cool statesman of letters, but remembered today as a sort of neoconservative uncle. The quote had been cut to two lines by the Canteen editors and seemed bizarre out of context, involving, as it did, a woman’s scraping knees and locusts (I will not subject you to the line). “Is that really the hottest thing you could find?” the model laughed. “That’s the least hot thing I’ve ever read.”

    But there was a particular sort of happiness to not being recognised. It was as if the model, the photographer and I had collaborated on a piece of fiction, and the fiction ran so deep that people were unable to connect the dots of the character back to the author (one of the great pleasures of writing imaginative fiction). Soon I stopped looking obsessively at my own photo and moved on to the others. Everyone was weird and transfigured. Tao Lin’s mouth was bloody with pomegranate juice; Stephen Elliott was getting a massage from a dominatrix; T Cooper stood in the snow wielding an axe; Michelle Tea was topless save for floral tattoos. Did anyone look truly glamorous? Sort of — but there was ultimately too much irony; or maybe I was projecting my own sense of irony — I could imagine the ironic smirks on the faces of the authors as they readied themselves for their shoots. And I’m sure I wasn’t wrong. Writers are self-conscious creatures. They can’t do anything without feeling a little bit abashed. Canteen, when it sent that first e-mail, had been right in its tone. Writers can be cultural heroes. But they choose, again and again, not to be.

    Mahajan is the author of the novel Family Planning. The Hot Authors project can be viewed at www.canteenmag.com


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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 43, Dated 29 Oct 2011
 

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