When Novels Become Commercials

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The literary/business news today is that an opulent Italian jewelry firm, Bulgari, has paid the author Fay Weldon an undisclosed amount of money to mention Bulgari at least a dozen times in her forthcoming novel, THE BULGARI CONNECTION.

This is the first known instance of paid product placement in the work of a highly regarded fiction writer. The hilariously sinister precedent opens all kinds of doors.

Weldon's deal will cause conflicted emotions among other writers. On the one hand, traditions of literary purity will be offended: "I am shocked! Shocked!..." On the other hand, garret-dwelling, check-bouncing, alimony-dodging authors will find that a light-bulb has popped on in their minds. Where's the harm in mentioning that Raskolnikov favored Armani suits? In letting it slip that Rhett Butler splashed on a little Brut, or that Jake Barnes wore Guccis in order to feel at home among the Eurotrash?

The only strictly literary problem might seem to arise among those authors whose novels describe the lives of the poor. It would not make sense, or be good business, for example, to portray the Joad family traveling west in a sleek eight-cylinder Packard sedan, Tom Joad's diamond Rolex flashing in the Dust Bowl air. The poor do not make good ads..... Or do they? Might be edgy possibilities here, a kind of Walker Evans chic — a good spread in Vanity Fair, page after page of gaunt black-and-white shots, weathered Depression faces, a certain erotic poverty...

The apparent problem vanishes, dissolves to a merely sentimental Marxist residue. Even without getting edgy, you could dress the Joads at the Gap. They could stop at McDonald's for a family meal. "I've preached for the Lord a mighty long time," Preacher Casey might say. "I've preached for the rich and poor. But these Big Macs is righteous, Lord!"

For years, Norman Mailer has been banging away at one book after another in order to support God knows how many ex-wives and college-age children. This is desperate work. Think how Mailer's way would have been eased if he could have made a few commercial arrangements. In describing Gary Gilmore's state-sponsored sendoff in 'The Executioner's Song,' Mailer might have billboarded a certain make of rifles and ammunition. "When you've got a nasty job to do and you can't afford a sloppy wing-shot..."

We have long since become inured to the sight of atheletes wearing a patchwork of commercial logos on their shirts and pants. We know that movie-makers take a lot of money to show certain products onscreen, casually. (Advertisers of Shakespeare's day would have rejoiced in the opportunity to have Lady Macbeth, for example, tell her kitchen staff in the first act: "We are having royal guests tonight, and nothing will do for this occasion but Mrs. Browne's Peacock Pies!")

But the literary arts have always cherished non-commercial pretensions, as if they were a refuge of purity and a counterweight to Mammon. Writers were supposed to belong to a guardian priesthood, whose duty enjoined, at bottom, a strict truth-telling. They were not necessarily required to engage in muckraking or anti-Babbitt, anti-commercial screeds equating business and money-making with Philistinism. But at a deeper level, the writer's vocation, he and she have assumed, had to do with getting to the truth of things, even when making up stories. The goal of product-placement advertising, on the other hand, is not to get to the truth of anything. It is to push the goods. Still, if the truth is that the hero would look good driving a BMW, where's the harm in cutting a side deal with the Bavarians?

Almost all writers (and non-writers) measure the success of literary work not so much by the good opinions of their few most intelligent and discerning readers, but rather by entirely commercial yardsticks — by the size of publishers' advances and by sales in the stores. A nice story, Mr. Melville, but I expect a commercial flop. You might mention the make of the sails.

The Fay Weldon precedent knocks another hole in the crumbling wall between church and state — between the inner-directed editorial independence of writers and the other-directed product-shilling of the marketing people. The flow of traffic through that hole in the wall is all one way.