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Sweetbitter is a gorgeous debut novel. Here's the controversy that could swallow it whole.

Sweetbitter
Sweetbitter
Knopf

Sweetbitter, a buzzy new debut novel by Stephanie Danler released this week, might be swallowed up by its own buzz. That’s unfortunate, because it’s a lovely book.

In the month before its publication, Sweetbitter was caught up in a controversy about the outsize influence that authors' physical appearance can have in publishing — and part of the controversy was about whether Danler's good looks had affected her book deal, by leading her publisher to invest disproportionate resources in her work.

That question is foreshadowed in Sweetbitter itself. The novel is about living in a world in which your worth as a person is conflated with your looks, and how to navigate that world without becoming complicit in it.

Sweetbitter first garnered attention for its fairy tale origin story

The New York Times first mentioned Sweetbitter in 2014, in an article reporting that Knopf had just awarded a six-figure, two-book deal to a debut novelist after she pitched an editor at a restaurant. The twist? The debut novelist (Danler) was the editor’s waitress at said restaurant, and the editor was a regular there.

It’s a fairy tale origin story with, as the Times writes, “the whiff of an urban legend,” and it becomes even more fairy tale–esque when you find out what the book is about. Sweetbitter is based on Danler’s time as a back waiter at the Union Square Cafe, the glamorous Manhattan restaurant where she worked for a year when she first moved to New York City.

It all sounds too good to be true: A server pays her dues toiling away as a back waiter, then turns her experience into a brilliant work of art and sells it for a handsome fee when the right person just happens to be seated in her section. Add to that the possibility of some juicy details about what goes on behind the scenes at a New York food institution, and who could possibly resist the book?

What the Times did not say in words was that Danler is beautiful. The article never mentions her appearance, but it’s accompanied by a picture of her standing next to a blue wall that brings out the blue of her eyes, her hair blond and sleek, her smile warm. She is what a book marketer I once worked with would delicately call mediagenic, and it makes that rags-to-riches story even more appealing. Who doesn’t want to see a pretty blonde succeed?

And with that, we move on to the next phase of the Sweetbitter publicity cycle.

Does publishing have a lookism problem?

At the beginning of May, Entertainment Weekly featured Danler as one of a number of debut novelists who scored huge advances and whose work will be published this summer. The article explores why publishers are willing to shell out six-figure checks for writers without any proven track record, and concludes that while great writing is important, other factors matter too — including authors' appearance.

Here’s the money quote:

[Danler’s editor, Claudia] Herr, for her part, acknowledges that an author’s appearance can affect an advance — “We look at all of that stuff” — but insists, “We would have paid her the same money if she weighed 500 pounds and was really hard to look at. That’s my firm belief.”

It’s a sentiment that is, to say the least, poorly phrased. The implicit idea that a 500-pound writer is a comical impossibility, that fat people are hard to look at, that paying fat writers and thin writers the same amount is a practice worth congratulating — none of it is great.

And people made their displeasure known. “I have to imagine that a lot of aspiring writers reading this article who know they might fit into a ‘hard to look at’ category would be discouraged from ever pitching an agent or editor,” Mallory Ortberg wrote at the Toast. Laura Miller, in a grimly pessimistic Slate article, took the quote as proof that “book publishing will never be purified of all the venal, commercial, and petty concerns of the world.” XOJane, never one to back away from embracing a backlash or a comma splice, demanded, “Can We Stop Piling on Claudia Herr, And Admit That Appearances Affect Everything?”

But where does all this leave Danler? None of the writers critiquing Herr's interview mentioned her, but the implication lurks beneath the controversy: If Herr is admitting to placing some undue weight on looks, how much weight did she place on Danler's? Did Danler just coast her way to fame and fortune on the strength of a pretty face?

Vogue more or less asked her as much in an interview:

Q: There’s been some noise on Twitter about your attractiveness and how that figured into your book advance. What do you make of it?

A: I find it so disappointing. There are so many ways in which people trivialize or discount women writers, and one of the ways is talking about the way that they look. I wish I could say that it shocked me more.

But of course it wouldn’t shock Danler, because Sweetbitter is about navigating life while knowing that people will conflate your worth — your professional, intellectual, and ontological worth — with your appearance.

Sweetbitter’s heroine feels complicit in her own objectification

Tess, Sweetbitter's protagonist, comes to New York City with no set ambitions beyond ambition itself: She wants to be successful at something, anything. She wants to be important. She applies for a restaurant job on a whim, for something to do, and just barely limps her way through a disastrous interview, fumbling for the names of wines she doesn’t know. But she can tell the manager likes her, so at the end of the interview she makes her move:

As I walked away I felt his eyes unabashedly on my ass. At the door, I rolled my cardigan off my shoulders, and arched as if stretching. No one knows how I got the job, but it’s better to be honest about these things.

That seedy opening haunts Tess through the rest of her career at the restaurant: when her co-workers tell her they all thought she was too pretty to be good at her job; when she wins an office personality contest that she thinks is a compliment, only to learn it’s really the "biggest whore" award; when she finally sleeps with her boss in exchange for a promotion. It’s then, she says, that she finally realizes, “I had been operating my entire life upon the assumption that most men wanted to fuck me. Not only had I known it and encouraged it, I had depended on it.”

But in depending on this assumption, Tess decides, she has “hurt myself, humiliated myself. … I had made myself so small … that I was unrecognizable.” She quits her job at the restaurant.

The arc of Sweetbitter is about a young woman refining her palate, both literal and metaphorical: She learns how to taste and judge food and wine, and she learns, as Danler told Grub Street, “to distinguish between good and bad experiences.” She also learns that people will objectify her whether or not she asks them to, but trading on that objectification will not help her in the long run. It will only make her feel complicit, as though she has done something awful to herself.

(And in the end, the promotion she was offered wasn’t even that great, anyway.)

Sweetbitter is smart, sharp, and funny

In Sweetbitter, seedy beginnings aside, Tess becomes genuinely good at her job. She accumulates an extraordinary amount of knowledge about luxury food and wine, which she capably passes along to the restaurant's customers; she learns to handle a crowded room.

And whatever effect Danler’s pretty face may have had on her publisher’s decisions, Sweetbitter is a genuinely good book. It’s smart and sharp and funny and incisive, and the sentences are beautiful. Danler writes about food without pretension or cliché, and she evokes New York City in 2006 — the moment just before the iPhone, when you could still get lost easily — with precision and clarity.

I don't mean to suggest there's a one-to-one correlation here, that Danler is Tess and the events of Sweetbitter actually happened to her with different names. There's no reason to think Sweetbitter is a roman à clef.

And there has, of course, been plenty of coverage of Sweetbitter that never mentions Claudia Herr’s inept quote. The Times gave it a rave; Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus both loved it.

Still, it’s both striking and unfortunate that in the weeks leading up to the book’s publication, much of the literary world seems to have decided en masse to act out the role of both Tess’s lecherous restaurant manager and her co-workers: first singling out a young woman for her good looks and charm and then accusing her of benefiting from special treatment.

It's no wonder Danler wishes she could say it was shocking.