Thursday, 14 July 2011

Does your appearance

- as an author - matter?
Dan Holloway was talking about this on "Help I need a publisher" yesterday. It has caused quite a lot of discussion.
My father occasionally grumbles about "fancy dress" - by which he means things like religious or legal attire. Each time I remind him that he would not be impressed if a judge sat in a court room dressed in dirty jeans and a t-shirt with holes in it. He agrees. The conversation subsides - only to be resurrected later.
However my father has always been concerned about clean fingernails, clean hair and clean shoes if going out. He also, despite the above comments, believes in dressing appropriately for the occasion.
And I think that is the thing that matters for authors. You need to dress appropriately (and behave appropriately.)
In my comments to Dan I said I have seen (and met) a great many authors in my lifetime. Dan spoke of the poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg once came to an Adelaide Festival of Arts Writers' Week along with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. They were two of the "big names" that year. I was introduced to them by the poet Judith Wright. What Judith really thought of them I was never sure. Ginsberg and I spent twenty minutes waiting for Judith late one afternoon. We sat on the steps of the old State Library lecture theatre and discussed Australian poetry. He was dressed in bib and brace overalls, a t-shirt and strings of hippie beads. Ferlinghetti, dressed in jeans and another t-shirt but without the beads, took me off to the pub where the writers were hanging out and bought me a lemon squash so he could grill me about the Barossa Valley. Ginsberg was interesting but I much preferred Ferlinghetti as a person - and not just because of the lemon squash. I was not particularly impressed by Ginsberg's beads. I thought they were ridiculous. (I was only about 18 at the time.) The way they dressed seemed, to me, to be indicative of their attitude to their audience. Ginsberg would have taken no notice of me at all in the general scheme of things. It was only because I had been specifically introduced - and he had been given something of mine to read which he presumably liked - that he bothered with me. Ferlinghetti was more of a people person and it showed.
All the children's writers I have met have been fairly conservatively dressed - some of them have been very conservatively dressed indeed. People like Ivan Southall and Colin Thiele sometimes used to wear a collar and tie. That is less likely now but, back in ancient times, they did that sort of thing. We had some writers for children at our local indie bookshop last year. They were all dressed in "casual" but neat dress. Nobody was wearing anything outrageous.
I would be wary of a writer for children who was outrageously dressed - unless it was intended to illustrate something from the books. Even then I think I would look for an underlying neatness, cleanliness and appropriateness of clothing that said, "I care enough about my audience to present myself well."
I think that is the thing. If you are an author then you need to respect your readers if you want their respect. As such, if I ever reach the giddy heights of being the author on display, I will endeavour to dress appropriately.


Dan Holloway said...

Thank you so much for writing this - it's a wonderful insight into a world I wish I'd been able to glimpse for real.

I am so so envious. I've spent, as you know, a lot of time recently thinking about Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti and their relationship. Both are heroes of mine for different reasons - pretty much the reasons you outlined - Ginsberg as a writer, Ferlinghetti for what he did for the arts. It's nice to read Lawrence really was a great guy.

A good friend of mine who's a bookseller and specialises in Beat Poetry loves telling me he doesn't really like "The Beat" because after not very long at all they started believing their own hype, and the lifestyle and approach became part of the "image". I'm absolutely with him on that - what I want from writers, especially ones who connect their lives with their work the way the Beats did (and the way I do) is authenticity (I know it's an unfashionable word). I don't want to feel they have put on an act. And that's possibly where I disagree ever so slightly on the appearance front. I would feel more disrespectful if I dressed for an audience in a way that wasn't me - they've come to see and hear me, presumably because they feel a connection with my work. That work is rooted in who I am, so it would be wrong of me not to "come as I am". So, with a job that requires me to look "normal" and a lack of budget that means I spend my time at home in the cheapest jeans and shirts, performing, for me, is the one time I can really dress myself as I would choose to dress all the time if I had the time and resources - it's when I get to be me, to take down the last barrier between me and the audience - and that feels like the most respectful thing I could do for people who've given me their valuable time.

As for Ginsberg not being interested in you if you hadn't been introduced - it's sad but from what I've heard of him I'm not wholly surprised. It's still a common trait of many writers. It's nothing to do with how well-known you are, which is often the excuse given - you see it on twitter all the time from people at the very start fo their career who have a tiny number of follwoers - they still won't talk to anyone who's not a "name". I've never got that - how on earth do you get to unearth the very most amazing talent - and people - if you don't talk to and take an interest in as many people as you can find?

u.v.ray. said...

I think you just have to be yourself. You can't make any particular audience like you. Just as in life none of us likes everyone and we can't be liked by everyone.

The creation of any art must not bow down to fickle mores. Indeed, anything worthwhile should not seek approval.

Despite the popular phrase: great minds think alike.

It's a phallacy. Great minds think differently.

JO said...

Great to see this topic aired so thoroughly.

Cat - I think you've grabbed the nub of it. What doesn't matter is being fat/thin/skin colour/differently abled. The bit that matters -when writers are presenting themselves to an audience, is to present oneself thoughtfully, with an eye to how they would like to see you. It's about caring enough about the people who have made the effort, and maybe spent money, to come to see you.

When I was working, I could wear trousers and hedgehog earrings when I was with children, but if I had to do expert witness stuff in Court - I worked in Child Protection - I worse fierce skirts and pulled my hair back.

I get your emphasis in authenticity, Dan, maybe underneath it all is going to see someone who really wants to communicate with me - on all sorts of levels - and one who simply stands on a stage with a take-it-or-leave it attitude. I saw Anne Enright in Edinburgh a couple of years ago - I have no idea what she wore, but she was such a great communicator and was so interested in everyone that I wanted to live next door to her.

Maybe that is the real issue - writers who are so engrossed in their own wonderfulness versus those who really want to share their ideas and their writing with the rest of us,

Dan Holloway said...

I agree (as usual) with every word of what UV says.

Jo "going to see someone who really wants to communicate with me" - yes, absolutely. To qualify that in the light of UV's comment and "mining my own life". An in-law of mine was singkle and wanted to meet a partner. He enrolled himself for a dance class, and met some lovely people. But the one thing he kept saying was that he wished they were more like him and weren't so into dancing. i believe the word "facepalm" was invented for such moments. I think it's like that with artists - if we try to please some generic idea of what we think an audience is, then we're doing a disservice to the people who really connect with our work. I think when we use words like "well-presented" without thinking about the full implication, we can forget that. It is, as you say, about connection. And removing distance. If I were to shoehorn myself into a shirt and chinos to read I'd 1. feel so uncomfortable I wouldn't give my best and 2. alienate the people who'd come because they thought I connecetd with them. By dressing the way I do, I can feel at home enough to focus 100% on the material and audience. Of course, different people feel at home doing and being different things - but the one thing an audience can smell surer than anything is fake - be it someone who's dressed outrageously "for show" or someone who's forced themselves into a tie. And a artist's primary duty is surely not to be fake.

JO said...

I think what I'm getting at (clumsily) is that the writers I get most pleasure from seeing are those who are as interested in their audience as they are in themselves - as opposed to the love-me-love-my-beads variety.

So maybe it's less about trying to please an audience, than engaging with them. When everybody is really listening appearances become less relevant.

Dan Holloway said...

Jo, I think I've been lucky enough that I've only been to one reading with an author whow was of the love-me-love-my-beads type (I *love* that description!!) and no, I'm not saying who, but she is very famous and I'm not the only person to have found it about her.

Leaving aside the readings I organise because I'm biased in my opinions of people who read at them (but trust me, if someone was more interested in themselves than the audience they'd never be invited back), I have to say the author I fell instantly in love with was Patti Smith, who was so lovely, and humble, and made made completely well up the way she talked about Robert Mapplethorpe.

Holly said...

I will put forth the comment that - it all depends. Are they at a particular time and location as an attraction? Then dressing appropriately for the event and audience is what any of us would expect.
Are they somewhere because everyone is there (SciFi or Mystery conventions come to mind) and they are attending as much as participating. In this case, outrageous dress just might be appropriate.

But there is never an excuse (unless you are living in your car or on a park bench) for showing up less that completely clean and odor free.

Dan Holloway said...

Holly, I know a few Steampunk fans (and, yes, even some trekkies) and the costumes are incredible!