Look for the bottle shape in Absolut's two-page spread in the February Vanity Fair and you'll be flat-footed. The two columns of running text? Nope. The film-noir lovely photographed in a rainy doorway? Close, but -- naah. It's only when you read the ad copy, of all things, that you find the MacGuffin -- the phrase "bottle of Absolut" in the 25th paragraph of a short story by Dominick Dunne.
Absolut's choice of short fictioneer seems odd -- while acclaimed for his literary romans à clefs of high society and murder, Dunne is not exactly America's Maupassant -- until you realize that he's also a VF special correspondent. But where you might see a borderline advertorial, I see opportunity.
The twist in Absolut's vodka marketini follows a year in which the biggest news in magazine fiction was the role of advertisers in keeping fiction out of magazines. Most famously, Esquire pulled a 20,000-word David Leavitt story in page proofs from its April issue, ostensibly for editorial reasons, after worries that vocally conservative advertiser Chrysler would yank its four ad pages. Later in the year Harper's -- which ran a cover including a woman's exposed nipple without blinking -- nervously spiked "Thirty Dildoes" by frequent past contributor Allan Gurganus because ... well, because, as the offending tale itself admits, "Thirty dildoes is a lot of dildoes."
Could Absolut be pointing us toward a third way out of these polarizing conflicts? After all, Dominick Dunne himself is a controversial property, what with his history of roman-à-clef-ing the powerful and influential to distraction, yet the distiller has no problem yoking its name to his to gain cachet among high-class readers. Could advertisers and writers benefit from a little cooperation? Let's look, for example, at a racy Leavitt passage:
"and then there was his cock, hard and springy as a mushroom, the
tip pearled with glistening dew ..."
Modified it only slightly to yield win-win prose:
"and then there was his cock, hard and springy as the responsive
suspension system of the Dodge Intrepid ..."
Not only could this minor concession mollify a few Nervous Nellies in Detroit, but isn't the language a little sharper than yet another genitalia-as-cornucopia analogy? (And how hard is a mushroom anyway?)
Grousing about this kind of sponsorship would be hypocritical, after all, when the publishing industry throws millions at Whoopi Goldbergs while expecting its finest to scrawl in penury in the name of literary tradition. A generous arrangement could have kept Raymond Carver far more flush and productive during most of his career than the chump change he got from Quarterly West and Seneca Review, and he wouldn't have had to alter a word. Take the first paragraph of "Gazebo," one of the most arresting openings in contemporary fiction and an ingenious product placement to boot: "That morning she pours Teacher's over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window." Carver not only mentions the product four times but also integrates it into the characters' lifestyles: "Booze takes a lot of time and effort if you're going to do a good job with it." If Carver had got what he was worth for these plugs, he might have generated twice the stories he did before smoking himself to death.
OK, so these suggestions are a little extreme. But so is the idea that any alliance between writers and commerce is inherently whorish and contrived. You want contrivance, take a look at some of the thin conceits writers and anthologists have used to electroshock their tired-ass muses. The 1992 collection "The Wedding Cake in the Middle of the Road" got authors including Ann Beattie, Madison Smartt Bell and Stuart Dybek to base short stories around the eponymous pastry. This is creative inspiration and a vodka bottle is implausible? And before you curse the stifling hand of the market, look at Harold Brodkey, who wrote 1994's acclaimed "Profane Friendship" under the aegis of an Italian organization that sponsored him to live in Venice and write a novel about the city. Whatever else you say about the famously unproductive Brodkey's deal with il diavolo, it did something that, until 1991, 30-odd years of untrammeled artistic freedom had not: It got him to finish a freaking novel.
And -- a point bemoaned by fiction lovers for years -- indifferent readers, not philistine Midwestern CEOs, have long been the greater threat to magazine fiction, pushing writers into tiny lit mags that even MFAs buy only for guilt and karma's sake. Fiction writers, curiously, are as sought after as ever by magazines -- just not their fiction: U.S. News is glad to have Jane Smiley weigh in on presidential morality; New Woman, to give Amy Bloom an advice column; Salon, to let Chitra Divakaruni opine that it takes a village to help her kids fly business class. Writers notoriously rival farmers in their belief that the world owes them their chosen living, but few magazines are going to publish fiction that can't pay its own way.
Still, any act of patronage has to be judged by its results, and there's the hitch: Dunne's story just isn't very good. A tepid heartwarmer with a few Sam-Spadey touches -- "How about a nip on a rainy night off Broadway?" -- very likely Dunne saw it as a piece of harmless hack work he could dash off at a sitting, then wait for the Brinks truck to pull up. But it doesn't have to be that way; plenty of writers do their best work in short-short pieces, as Tony Earley demonstrates in "Hardy in the Evening," the beautiful 650-word story that kicks off Esquire's new "Snap Fiction" section (February).
Of course, here's where advertisers' skittishness comes into play again -- plenty of marketing nimrods instinctively would rather slit their throats than attach a brand name to a dark tale of loss and anguish. But would that really be such a risk for Absolut? In fact alcohol and tobacco companies are notorious for embracing publications and placements that other industries wouldn't touch, precisely to garner edginess and street cred: That's why they were in gay and lesbian publications years before Ellen cuddled Anne in the White House. Absolut is exactly the sort of dominant name that should have the confidence to take creative chances, which the well-educated Warbuckses it's hunting in Vanity Fair and elsewhere would reward.
From magazines to museum exhibits, business has become the Catholic Church of our age vis-à-vis art patronage -- but it may need to be reminded that doing right by artists is also doing right by its own patrons. Maybe it's time for readers to take a page from pro-choicers and break out the bumper stickers: "I support an author's right to disturb -- and I drink."