The Makings Of A Literary It-Girl
We know their names and devour their books, but what happens before and after being dubbed a literary it-girl? Allie Rowbottom breaks down the label — the good, the bad, and the very ugly.
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Picture me newly thirty, my first book under contract with a Big Five publisher. It’s the start of my career, the sort of start I’ve dreamed of, and I can’t stop feeling that with one false move my dreams will be revoked. But it’s time to take my author photo, and lord help me, I want to look like a woman who believes herself deserving. Already, I’ve had a friend shoot me, but the results weren’t what I’d hoped: too black and white, too sweet, too innocent, with none of the edge I want to conjure, the edge I feel is in my writing and therefore part of who I am.
At home I set the stage to try again. Daytime. Sheepskin rug over the couch, pink lights in the background, casting it all in a soft, softcore glow. I thrift a silk blouse and button it all the way to the top, pair it with my favorite jeans, the high-waisted ones I have to lay on my back to zip. I hand my husband the camera. We take one hundred photos and of them I can stand to look at three.
In the photograph I like most, I’m smiling, coy. I’ve exposed only the skin on my face and the top of my hand. It’s a colorful image, one I can picture fitting with the teal green of my book cover, which, between us, I don’t love. I had specifically asked for a different design, but bargaining the background from “millennial pink”–a color seemingly assigned, in 2018, to every female author’s book as a matter of course–to teal was itself a battle, so I feel grateful for what I’ve got. It is, I believe, very important to express my gratitude before voicing concerns about any element of book production. It’s important not to be labeled entitled, privileged, a bitch. Online, I watch other women writers with debut books perform their gratitude–effusive, self-protective–and wonder how they’re feeling. If they have reservations about the publication of their work, they don’t say so. Instead, they self-deprecate and apologize for self-promotion.
You have almost certainly guessed by now that my chosen author photo was rejected by my publishing team.. They were delicate about it. They didn’t want to have this conversation with me, the one I’m having with you now. But they had been discussing it privately and had come to a consensus: the photo had to go. They didn’t want readers getting the wrong idea about me, they said. They didn’t want readers to see me as unserious. Readers are weird and judgmental, they said. Next book, they promised. When you’ve blown up and become a bestseller, when you’ve proven yourself a real writer, we can paper every bus in New York City with this photo. I received these emails in the parking lot of a UPS store, where I sat in my car, crying tears of total mortification.
The book in question, Jell-O Girls, was heavily researched, a blend of cultural criticism, feminist theory, and memoir. It wasn’t an easy book, nor was it a book easy to pass off as the sentimental schlock of a poor little rich girl whining about her privilege and coasting on nepotism. Yet, that’s exactly what happened. The book was marketed to readers who didn’t like its darkness, its feminism, and hadn’t been primed to expect it. On Goodreads I was called self-indulgent, ungrateful, and gross. My mother, who died a long and painful death, was called these things as well. Still, in my mind, one review resounds: CANCER Lololololololol SO MUCH CANCER. Sometimes I think about the person who wrote it. What was going through their mind as they pressed the keys?
In the media, coverage was positive, glowing even. But the conversation still turned, time and again, to only the most literal angles of the story: my mother’s tangential connection to the Jell-O fortune, the tragic tribute of a daughter writing about her parent’s death. The book was spun as the tell-all of the demure, loyal girl in the black and white author’s photo I agreed to with a single, embarrassed email. In the end, sales fell in line, disappointing, as they often are when a book is marketed as something it’s not to an audience ill-suited to its questions. But I want to be clear: I don't blame my then-publishing team for any of this. They were all kind, talented people who were simply marketing the book the way they thought best. It just wasn't me, and I didn't yet know how to push for what was.
That was years ago now, years in which I’ve written and published a novel, Aesthetica, for which I chose my own author photo and took an active hand in every element of production, from the Publishers Marketplace announcement to the jacket copy to the publicity. I am not ashamed that I have thought carefully about my ideal readers and how to reach them. Nor am I ashamed to have done everything I can to promote my book, especially to a world of readers addicted to their phones. To those who say such considerations detract from the purity of creative work, I would say they do the opposite. Knowing your readers, knowing who you are speaking to, knowing why your work is pertinent, and how to speak about it, hones artistic vision, ambition and quality.
I’m writing this several weeks after the publication of an article called The Makings of a Literary It Girl, an article I gave quotes for, along with several of my friends and acquaintances, all women, all accomplished fiction writers from various backgrounds and at various stages of their careers. In the piece, published in Nylon Magazine and written by Sophia June, we “it girl” writers briefly discuss how we’ve approached the promotional aspects of our work, taking matters into our own hands to celebrate our novels and find readers who will want to do the same. One wouldn’t think it an incendiary subject, but there is no denying that on Twitter, it was.
For some of us “it girls,” the promotion of our work includes a performance of ourselves as writers (primarily on social platforms), which inherently involves the performance of our gender itself in conversation with the subjects we write about. The artist should be invisible, some have tweeted in response to this piece. I’ve never felt that was an option. I have been conflated with my body since the age of twelve. That such conflation has become both a burden and inextricable from who I am is an internal conflict that cuts to the quick of my relationship with womanhood, a relationship that informs my writing. I would hazard a guess that this is true for many.
I post on Instagram, I face my readers, not because I am oblivious, but because I am in on the joke, the impossible double bind of my embodiment, how tightly it is entwined with false assumptions, binaries, restrictions. It’s one way to cope, not the only way; I’m not even sure I recommend it. In exchange for my Instagram presence, I’ve been called all the predictable things women are called by people who don’t like them, or who like them so much that like turns to hate. I’ve had photos lifted off my grid and posted to an alternative-literature Reddit thread for cis/het/men where they titled my post, “Author Allie Rowbottom,” before dissecting my body part by part in the service of determining: hot or not? Weirdly, I found their commentary less reductive than much of the Jell-O Girls press rollout: at least the Reddit incels called me an author, not an heiress.
When it comes to labels, rarely is there a win. I’m not complaining. I participated in The Makings of a Literary It Girl knowing the term would be in some way applied to me. But it's hard to imagine male novelists being categorized with an equivalently infantilizing label, just as it’s hard to imagine male novelists spinning such a label into a marker of empowerment as women have learned to do. It’s hard to imagine male novelists being objectified on Reddit or threatened persistently over DM.
That said, I suspect everyone’s real issue with “it girl” as a term has less to do with umbrage taken at the word “girl” than with the word “it.” Case in point: the proliferation of Cousin It memes in response to the article. It being inherently other and therefore inherently unattainable, exclusionary. Exclusion being painful, especially in a publishing industry where success is informed by myriad factors other than merit and writers compete for crumbs of an ever-shrinking pie. Especially when there’s the added undercurrent of gender, the cultural institution of apoplectic fury and ridicule that waits for the woman who dares.
Publishing leaves many writers out, often for no reason other than bad timing, lack of resources, or ignorant gatekeepers. Coping in this grim reality inspires both bitterness and creativity. The very market forces that influence some to “think outside the box” about selling their work also influence jealousy, comparison, and ire. Whether or not good writing prevails in the end (I think it does), what good writing requires is the author’s capacity for critical thought and empathy. Yet, as I peruse Twitter responses to the now infamous “it girl” article, I see many people who consider themselves writers or in some way intellectuals or in some way invested in the literary discourse, resorting to snap judgments and lazy assumptions about clout-chasing “literary it girls” without considering how they themselves are chasing clout by calling said “it girls”–credentialed writers all–“unserious” and reducing our work to “vanity projects” in exchange for the transient dopamine hit of a like.
For those who want to know, Aesthetica, published by the large independent Soho Press, sold over twice as much in its first month as Jell-O Girls, published by Little, Brown and Company, has sold in its entire lifetime (check Bookscan and you’ll see a different story, which is a subject for someone else to write about). Aesthetica has been optioned for film and television, a boon for any writer and one worth several times my book advance for me. Which is to say, I have seen returns on the money and time I put into marketing my book.
It is a privilege to write a book and it is a privilege to publish one. It is a privilege to invest in anything and a privilege to see returns. Unlike many writers, I have never tried to hide my privilege. But for the most part, what I have done for my novel has come less from monetary expenditures than from friendships and connections I made being generous with my time and spirit, something a few people on literary Twitter could learn from.
If you don’t want to throw a party or if you can’t, or if you feel left out, you can always come to mine, and I will welcome you, make your acquaintance and do what I can to help you when your book comes out. I’m not trying to sound self-righteous, I’ve simply found that kindness is the best tool to combat the jealousy and ire I mentioned earlier. If you can’t take part in events physically, take part online in a positive manner. Careers are long, you never know who you might want to someday ask for blurbs, advice, introductions, in-conversation events, all of which are free labor for the person being asked to do them, which is itself a publishing industry problem I think needs addressing. Will this happen? Probably not anytime soon, so at least for now, the whole system functions on goodwill, which will be in short supply if you spend your precious time dragging other writers online.
Bottom line, maybe I am an “it girl,” maybe I am not. Maybe I have a PhD in literature (I do), and maybe I am a bimbo (I am). Multiple things can be true about a person at once just as multiple things can be true about a work of art. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, famous male writer, noted party-goer and great literary talent, said that one. But why, when it comes to women writers, is it so hard for some to comprehend that we can be social and smart? Savvy marketers of our work and writers of work that lasts?
The same line of thinking that prompted my first publishing team to change my author photo persists here, five years later, when @neko_girl tweets, “i see a lot of women, not girls, trying to convince me that they are the coolest... but nothing resembling anything intellectual or literary. or should ‘girls’ prefer being pretty and desirable to substance?” It doesn’t have to be one thing or the other. The work can be celebrated, and it can be good. It can publish to the fanfare of a fart in the wind and be good. Or bad. The writer can be privileged in one sense and disadvantaged in another. The woman can look however she looks, call herself whatever she calls herself, and be serious or unserious or possess an infinity of invisible or visible attributes.
As I scroll the Twitter backlash to The Makings of a Literary It Girl, I pass several images of Walt Whitman, who is described in each tweet as the OG literary It Girl for his penchant for self-promotion. Do we think less of his talent because of it? In the end, is it not his body of work that we remember? What was that famous quote? Ah yes, “I contain multitudes.”