The Me-Me-Me rot
Look at the two photos above and be honest about your reactions. At the top is the picture James Delingpole uses on the back of his novel, Thinly Disguised Autobiography. The one below is the author picture the publishers chose to go with my new book — bland, vanilla, spiritdraining, isn't it? When Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, saw it, he said. 'It makes you look like a dreary Tory MP.'
There are worse things than being dreary or conservative, though. Like smug, vain and heavily posed — words you might use of the Delingpole byline photo. To be fair to Delingpole, it was never meant to be a conventional author picture. It was taken in the early 1990s for his Sunday Telegraph column, 'Party Piece'. As Delingpole describes the column, 'It was my first exercise in the solipsism that has become my trademark, where I'd describe in toe-curling detail my humiliations in the world of showbiz partyland.
'It captures possibly my favourite ever haircut (my pretty-boy bob, which I seem to remember Robert Hardman — my editor, now a Daily Mail writer — ordered me to shave off); it shows me smoking a fag which I don't do any more; and it makes me realise how pretty I was as a youth. Also it makes me look loucher and more sophisticated than I have ever been really.'
To be fair, again, to Delingpole, there is a tongue-in-cheek element to the picture, used because it belongs to the period that the book was set in. The photo is also described in the novel where Delingpole, in his own words, 'laments how much more raddled [he was] than he is now, and how tragically he wasted his ephebic beauty because it never got him nearly as much sex as he now realises it should have'.
When did writers start to fall in love with their own graven images? As early as the tenth century, St Dunstan was illuminating his manuscript with his picture but you could hardly accuse him of being an egomaniac — he is pictured as a very small figure prostrating himself at the feet of Jesus.
The Me-Me-Me rot set in during the 1520s, when frontispieces started appearing in printed books with author pictures — the most famous likeness of Shakespeare, the one with the telephone
receiver hair and the square white ruff, comes from the frontispiece to the 1623 first folio.
From the off, authors didn't think artists did them justice, although their complaints were a little different then: rather than worrying that his bum looked too big, Erasmus was concerned that his 1526 pic ture by Albrecht Darer might make him look too thin. Before he secured Dtirer's services, he wrote to a friend, 'I wish I could be portrayed by Darer. He began my portrait in charcoal at Brussels, but he has probably put it aside long ago. If he could do it from my medal or from memory, let him add some fat.'
Author pictures, as we know them — photographs on the back of dustjackets — only got going in the second world war. Alexander Gleason of Henry Pordes Books in the Charing Cross Road, a media historian, says, 'It happened at the same time as the BBC started to use correspondents' names for the first time, as a way of making viewers and readers identify more closely with, and feel comforted by, broadcasters and writers during the war.'
A decade after the war ended, authors began to develop more and more complicated pictures. Robert Graves, on the back of the 1956 edition of Claudius the God, has already acquired some useful props — a pen and some paper — that shout out 'Writer at work'. The road to the heavily posed Delingpole shot had begun.
There are, though, signs of an end to all this egomania. After they chose the above
photo for my book, the publishers had second thoughts — and decided not to use one at all. I'm trying to pretend I don't mind.
Hany Mount's My Brief Career: The Trials of a Junior Lawyer is published by Short Books (19.99).