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There’s nothing novel about art patronage. Prince Esterhazy paid Haydn to write music, and Pope Julius II engaged Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of a chapel — and, as the New York Times reported on Monday, last year an Italian jewelry firm hired British author Fay Weldon (“The Life and Loves of a She-Devil”) to write a novel that was privately published and given to 750 special clients.
Now, this fall, that novel will go public when “The Bulgari Connection” is published in England and in America (November, Atlantic Monthly Press). And as well-written, witty and wicked as Weldon’s 22nd book may be, its genesis is guaranteed to get even more attention than its literary merit. While Jane Friedman, chief executive of HarperCollins Publishers enthused about the deal to the Times, calling it “fantastic” and saying it has given her “lots of ideas,” not everyone sees literary product placement as a nifty new marketing tool.
“For a novelist to celebrate a corporation for a fee is a revolting idea,” said Jason Epstein, author of “Book Business: Past, Present and Future” and former editorial director of Random House.
Never mind that Epstein has been reporting on the death of publishing as we know it since late 1999, calling for a revolution that includes authors’ turning to self-publishing and the prediction that print-on-demand kiosks in Kinko’s will replace many bookstores.
He still feels that what Weldon has done is going too far. And Epstein is not alone. Dozens of authors reacted negatively as well, when they learned of this new form of product placement. However brilliant the lines Weldon may have penned to tell this story, it is the line she may have crossed by writing the book itself that has become cause for comment.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”) called it a “lame idea.”
Rick Moody (“The Ice Storm,” “Demonology”) said: “You don’t want to judge another writer, and certainly not a British writer of considerable standing, and yet you do sort of want to say, uh, don’t your books sell enough copies already? Don’t be a jerk!”
And Ron Hansen (“Mariette in Ecstasy,” “A Stay Against Confusion”) doesn’t just think it’s the author who will find her reputation damaged or diminished by the deal. He argues that any corporation involved in such a sponsorship will suffer for making such a craven attempt to manipulate buyers.
“It would be one thing for Philip Morris, say, to award $500,000 to a writer because the corporate board was knocked out by the writer’s art and wanted to see more of it, and quite another for them to expect a protagonist to light up after sex or whenever he’s in a quandary,” said Hansen.
But she who will be seen as the devil by purists laughs off her critics. Weldon declares, “Product placement or none, this is as good a novel as I’ve ever written.”
Admitting that she probably would have turned down the offer if it had come from the makers of a less prestigious product, such as Wrigley’s Chewing Gum, Weldon said that Bulgari offered her total artistic control and a nice amount of money for three months’ work.
The novel, set in the glittery world of charity auctions, big business and high art in contemporary London, concerns a wealthy businessman and his successful young wife, an artist with a portrait for sale, two women wearing Bulgari necklaces, a touch of the supernatural and big dose of envy. And she never expected any controversy because she never imagined the book would be released on the open market. “But it turned out all right and so my agent and I sent it on to the publishers,” Weldon said.
The whole process was what she imagined might have gone on between a Renaissance sculptor and his patron.
But Chabon does not see Bulgari as a modern patron and suggests that what Weldon has done is “copywriting.”
Perhaps “The Bulgari Connection” is a hybrid — both patronage and advertising — a byproduct of the pervasive corporatization of every aspect of our lives.
According to some studies, we see or hear more than 3,000 advertising messages per day. Even public television now runs what look like commercials in the name of corporate sponsorship identification. Advertising is so pervasive that we can no more easily imagine a sports figure without logos than a Hollywood film without strategically placed brand name products.
When I worked as an advertising copywriter, a fellow aspiring novelist and I kept a list of those of our ranks who had been published and were no longer living in ad-land.
Certainly the ideal way to get between the hard covers of a book was to have gone to an Ivy League school, majored in creative writing, had a short story published in the New Yorker, gotten picked up by superagent Binky Urban and had a first novel published before your 25th birthday.
But the time-honored tradition of putting in a few years shilling soap works, too. Besides, we consoled ourselves, advertising wasn’t such a bad teacher. We learned about words, language, setting a scene, creating characters, dramatic action and all about editing, editing and editing. We had only 30 seconds and a handful of well-chosen words in which to make an impression and move our audience to watch, listen and buy.
After work, the two of us would go out for drinks, and when we weren’t talking about the novels we wrote from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., we recited the names of those writers who had gone before us and had indeed escaped:
So I asked Weldon if perhaps it was because of her years in advertising at the London office of Ogilvy and Mather that the Bulgari offer had not seemed so very foreign to her.
“That might be. It always seemed to me that in advertising you were making up little stories and using language to sell products. And with novels you were making up little stories and using language to sell ideas. So for a while I sold products and then I moved on and sold ideas — like feminism. And now I’ve done a book that is mostly one but a little bit of the other.”
Rick Moody thinks that all authors are engaged in advertising whether we realize it or not since the names of giant conglomerates are on the spines of our books.
“It’s naive to think that writing doesn’t already submit to the hegemony of multinational capital,” said Moody. “Moreover, these multinational corporations, through their editorial apparatus, exert considerable pressure as to content in books.”
He also suggests that there are far worse offenses than Weldon’ taking Bulgari’s offer. He mentions that musicians license their songs to all manner of products and that actors regularly shill for corporations.
“One expects writers to be smarter,” Moody said, “but not all writers are smart, otherwise the bestseller list would look a lot different from the way it looks now.”
One of the authors on that list, Janet Evanovich (“Seven Up”), is more concerned with the quality of the reading experience and meeting reader expectation than in the morality of commercialization.
“I suppose I feel the same way about this as about authors’ proselytizing their beliefs in their books … if it’s obvious and obnoxious then it doesn’t work,” said Evanovich.
We don’t expect good fiction to push us in any direction, whether toward buying a product or adopting a philosophy. But perhaps it’s not the broad strokes — like putting an expensive name-brand necklace in a book — that we should really fear. One could argue that the more subtle messages, both in fiction and advertising, are more insidious. Still, few authors could imagine accepting an offer like Bulgari’s.
Elizabeth McCracken (“The Giant’s House,” “Niagara Falls All Over Again”) said that even though she once wrote an article for Mercedes-Benz magazine that was essentially a three-page ad for the car maker, she’d pass.
“I’m a fiction writer: I’m a control freak, I have delusions of grandeur, I am GOD. There’s a reason it wasn’t called the Garden of Eden, brought to you by PepsiCo. It’s not that God couldn’t have whipped up a refreshing cola beverage on the ninth or 10th day, after the important stuff was done; it’s just that once he cottons to someone else’s vision, it ceases to be his own.”
That seems to be one of the most common themes in the argument against patronage of this sort. No author likes the idea that by taking money and agreeing to use a brand name, he or she might be ceding control of the work to a corporate sponsor.
And what if that prelapsarian cola bottle, McCracken asked, ended up lying around until such a time as Cain finds it and bludgeons his brother? “Wouldn’t PepsiCo complain that they’d asked to be included in the good part of creation, back when everyone was naked and thirsty, but that murder by beverage was not part of the agreement?” she said.
Yet Weldon assured me that Bulgari gave her complete freedom, and from the publisher’s description of the book, it seems unlikely that the average reader will wonder if her use of the brand name was anything other than the author’s choice. After all, Truman Capote didn’t get anything to title his book “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Despite the sponsor’s promise not to interfere, Masha Hamilton (“Staircase of a Thousand Steps”) counters that authors need to insulate themselves against any and all marketing strategies for fear they might cripple the creative process.
“‘Staircase,’ for instance, would never have been written if I’d listened to marketing concerns — which were that a story about Arabs who weren’t terrorists, a story about Palestinian villagers considered apart from politics, would never sell in the United States.”
Authors who are hired for their own brand-name recognition to endorse another brand name in an explicit advertisement, however, are in a different situation, one that few find fault with.
Ron Hansen pointed out that Tama Janowitz, Gloria Steinem and John Irving have all done ads of one sort or another. “I find myself envying them rather than criticizing them. Their writing wasn’t involved, only their celebrity. Ultimately, the question is when does fiction writing become advertising — that is, when does the search for truth become the search for dollars. Each writer probably has to answer that alone.”
In a related example, a few years ago, Absolut vodka commissioned such authors as Dominick Dunne and Douglas Coupland to write (very) short stories in which the liquor appeared. Those stories, however, appeared only in magazine ads purchased by the company, and not in the authors’ own books.
Of course, in a perfect world, none of us would ever be faced with the dilemma of turning down a tempting offer for the sake of artistic purity. But the world of fiction isn’t all that healthy these days. Maybe some sponsorship should be encouraged?
Here are some facts: Fiction sales are flat. More than 30 percent of all hardcovers shipped are returned. Publishers have cut back on advertising. Newspapers and magazines have cut back on the number of books they review. Fewer and fewer authors get any serious promotional dollars and fewer still are given book tours. In fact, many authors are paying for their own book tours.
So what if Mont Blanc, for instance, offered to host a national book-signing tour for six authors per year. Each would be selected after his or her novel had been written (so there would be no possibility of undue influence) and whisked off to read and sign — with a Mont Blanc pen, of course.
Significant advertising featuring the author, his or her book, reviews, blurbs and a schedule of appearances at local bookstores would appear in appropriate publications.
I think I’d take that offer. In fact, if you have Mont Blanc’s phone number, could you e-mail it to me? I’d like to pitch it to them.
Hamilton also said she’d take the tour. “No one would be telling me how or what to write, and that’s the crucial issue for me. This [Mont Blanc] example seems to me, in fact, to qualify as legitimate (and not crass) corporate sponsorship of the arts,” said Hamilton.
Michael Chabon said: “Personally I would be turned off by ‘Zima Presents Zadie’ (not that she would, ever, I’m just being cute). But what do I know?”
McCracken said she would refuse a sponsored tour although she once gave a reading — along with several other authors — that was hosted by a scotch company.
“So where’s the line?” she asked.
Wherever it is, Weldon is not concerned that crossing it will damage her literary reputation. “The hell with that. What is literature now? What are books? What is promotion? And where do you draw the line between art and commerce?” Weldon asked rhetorically.
In defining that ever more elusive line, Moody recalled a time when he was a kid and some mass market paperbacks had advertising inserts in them.
“They were irritating,” he said. “But not so irritating as a writer selling product placement rights in a book. The best thing to do, to make clear the hideousness of the situation, would be to make your book entirely about product placement, which Bret Easton Ellis has done to a satisfying satirical effect. ”
And then Moody wondered if now would perhaps be a good time to ask if Salon is going to have advertising on the page where this article appears.
M.J. Rose is the author the novels "Lip Service" and "In Fidelity."More M.J. Rose.
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