September 17, 2001
Share this story by E-mail
Advertising has invaded almost every area of our lives. The Internet itself is home to an army of aggressive and ever more invasive banner ads. Going to the movies means sitting through twenty minutes of ads for Coca Cola, Pepsi, restaurants, skateboards, Reeboks, jeans, furniture stores and chocolate. The humble TV screen at home is full of logos lurking in the corners; if you happen to be watching a sports event the background of any sports terrain involved -- be it a baseball diamond, a Formula 1 race track or a skating rink -- is so festooned with banner ads that it is hard to make out the real shape of the sports arena any more. Ads have been stamped into beach sand, stencilled on city sidewalks, plastered on giant billboards which loom ominously beside every major highway; product placements in movies (a Coke can in the forefront of a wide-angle shot of a yuppie kitchen, for example) have been sold for big bucks for a while now. Movie stars already dripping with millions turn up touting anything from lip gloss to investment magazines.
But a lot of this we are inured to -- we are so used to see the "beautiful people" in ads, for example, that nobody bats an eyelid when Andie McDowell or Heather Locklear turns up pushing a particular brand of hair colour shampoo. Fresh-faced 18-year-olds who wouldn't know a wrinkle if it came up and bit them on their petite upturned noses brandish pots of anti-aging cream in the faces of forty-somethings who, vulnerable and therefore gullible, buy the dream. It's the modern media, after all. Pick up a contemporary glossy magazine and you have to leaf through seven or ten pages of full-page glossy ads before you even get to the contents page. C'est la vie, we mutter, and plough on to leaven the reading matter from the BuyBuyBuy pages.
Publishing has, so far, remained relatively immune to this assault. There are exceptions; the industry journal Publisher's Weekly has taken to selling its cover to an advertiser who then has a fold-out ad on the first spread of the magazine itself -- but even this, although the thin edge of the egregious wedge, has so far been confined to advertising books and publishers. Keeping it in the family, so to speak.
Fay Weldon's new novel, The Bulgari Connection, opens up a different and rather unpleasant can of worms, however. This is a work for which she was, according to New York Times journalist David Kirkpatrick, "paid an undisclosed sum" in return for giving the international jeweler Bulgari a prominent place in the novel. She did exactly that, to the point of featuring the name of the jeweler in the book's title itself.
This, too, is not the first time something like this has happened -- but another instance quoted by Mr. Kirkpatrick in his article involves a little-known writer with a talent for entrepreneurship who managed to sweet-talk Seagram into sponsoring a satirical novel involving scotch. It is not news, for example, that publicity and promotion have been riding the edges of the commercial for years, with a connection to anything saleable being avidly and comprehensively exploited. There are books, especially children's books, that have been built around merchandising potential of their characters or plots. But all of these are peripherals; the little-known author who blazed a more blatantly commercial trail could be forgiven for his sins, perhaps, if one takes into account the current state of the publishing industry, where authors with no name recognition are having an increasingly hard time breaching the fortresses of the super-corporations which have the publishing world in their grip. But Ms. Weldon is not a new and unknown author. She is a name-recognition writer who has basically agreed to write novel-length ad copy for Bulgari. The fact that Ms. Weldon started her career as an advertising copywriter for the advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather may have something to do with the fact that, apparently, she did this job well.
Too well, perhaps. Because now that it's been done, the publishers smell blood. "What better way to spread an idea than to commission a book?" Jane Friedman, the chief executive of Harper Collins Publishers, the British publisher of Ms. Weldon's book, has been reported as saying. Of course, the problem is obvious and immediate -- they will need big names for credibility. One more "Road Closed" sign for the new writer with no record and no name recognition. The young and the brilliant may be denied publication simply because the reading public will trust a Fay Weldon's endorsement of something over somebody else they have never heard about before. Even more ominously, the marketing executives, who already have far too much input into what is accepted for publication these days in terms of the dreaded Bottom Line, are climbing onto the bandwagon already and being quoted as saying that books are "the next wave of product placement." Ms. Weldon's agent "loved the idea," and will be, he says, recommending the product placement route to other clients. "What's the difference," he asks disingenuously, "between being paid by a publisher and being paid by an Italian jewelry firm?" (Well, speaking for myself, the first entails being paid for your skill and talent as a writer, and the second for your ability and aptitude to sell something. The two are not necessarily equivalent, and should not be.)
Bulgari itself, with whom the idea originated, have pronounced themselves pleased at the bargain. In a magazine ad, says Bulgari's CEO complacently, you have only a certain amount of space in which to speak. Whereas in a book, I suppose, the jewelry magnate can monopolise a person's attention for the duration of an entire novel. The consumer's option of turning a magazine page and finding a rival company advertising their diamonds is neatly removed.
Other authors are less enthusiastic about the idea. The president of the Author's Guild, Letty Cottin, has called it the "billboarding of the novel."
Weldon herself is on record as having an initial and genteel recoil at the idea -- the "I am an award-winning literary author and people like me do not do this" reaction, however, was quickly supplanted by a slightly peevish, "Well, they'll never give me the Booker Prize anyway, so what the hell" kind of attitude. Well, Ms. Weldon, now they mightn't; before you went on record with this, they might have considered it...
Fay Weldon's track record and reputation lies in the "literary" quality of her work.* Her novels and stories have generally dealt with women, from a gamut of social classes, and have taken the time and trouble to explore the problems, joys, losses, angsts, and courage of such women in a leisurely, thoughtful way. The novels were more to do with character than with plot. The Bulgari book, however, although it apparently deals with similar themes, is only about 200 pages long, a much faster, more plot-driven kind of book. The kind that we knew as "pot boilers." As much as fans might adore the writings of a Danielle Steel, or a Judith Krantz, or a Jackie Collins, or a Jacqueline Susann, none of them would ever have characterised these writers as "literary" writers -- they were great storytellers, and they told their stories with pizzazz, with glamour, with, well, glitzy plot-driven devices (any one of them would have been a natural for a product-pushing book). The closest cross between High Literature and glitz was Barbara Taylor Bradford, and even she relied on some soap opera for her multigenerational sagas filled with passion, unrequited love, rags-to-riches ascents, plucky heroines and handsome wealthy male protagonists waiting in the happy-ever-after finales. Weldon wrote her latest in less than six months. "It's a good piece of advertising prose," Weldon says defiantly of a work whose main claim to fame appears to be its earnest attempt to convince readers that Bulgari is the only jeweler in town. Or at least the only one worth mentioning. "The Bulgari Connection" is scheduled for distribution in the United States by the small literary publisher Grove/ Atlantic in November. They say that they questioned the book initially, but then decided that they loved it anyway. However, the quote from their spokeswoman ends with a telling disclaimer that "the publisher has no relationship with Bulgari."
Fay Weldon is delighted with the whole thing, and said she would consider another, similar, commission -- she claims that the idea itself is irrelevant, or at least the place where it comes from is. "The novel is still what you want to write," Weldon says.
I'm in the market for writing a novel about Rolls Royce, Tiffany's, Lalique, Versace, Estee Lauder, or -- why not -- Microsoft. Any takers?
* http://www.redmood.com/weldon/bibliography.html -- (back)
Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her next novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, is due out in September 2001 with Harper Collins. Recently, Hromic won the much coveted BBC online short story competition. Her story, The Painting, was broadcast in the UK in the last week of January 2001.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Alma A. Hromic 2001. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
This Week's Internal Links
Terror Speculations - by Milo Clark
The Fruits of the Whirlwind - by Aleksandra Priestfield
For The Asking - by Michael W. Stowell
Waist Deep In The Big Muddy, And The Big Fool Says To Press On - by Stephen Gowans
My Patriotism Was Not Offended - by John Blunt
In Search of Peaceful Tracks - by Jan Baughman
The Lost Opportunities of Liberty - by Gilles d'Aymery
Nuclear Weapons Free Zone - by Michael W. Stowell
Alexander Lukashenko Gets The Milosevic Treatment - by Stephen Gowans
I Had A Dream Says Carla Del Ponte - by Edward S. Herman
Alma Hromic's Commentaries on Swans
This is an Emotional Argument (July 2001)
Letter From My Father (June 2001)
They Change Their Sky (May 2001)
Year Two, P.K. (March 2001)
Letter to my Unborn Child (February 2001)
On the Anniversary (September 2000)
Subject: Into Myth (September 2000)
Sadness in Novi Sad, Serbia (April 2000)