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By Barton Wong
Well, Fay Weldon has done it this time. Fay who? many of our esteemed readers might ask. Ms. Fay Weldon, 69, CBE, writer of two dozen novels, including The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (no, I haven't heard of it either), and sell-out. That Fay Weldon. If you haven't heard of her before, no doubt you'll hear of her in the future. Mark my words, the publication of her latest novel, The Bulgari Connection, will go down in literary histories as one of the blackest days ever for artistic integrity and freedom in the Western world. You might think that is a touch melodramatic perhaps, but then again, as a writer and as a reader, I am deeply offended that it should have come to this. To quote the Times and Telegraph news articles, "Fay Weldon has created a literary genre by merging fiction and blatant product placement in a novel commissioned by a jewelry company," "Her new book, The Bulgari Connection, was commissioned by the Italian jewelers of the same name and features the firm and its products on many of its 200 pages." If this doesn't leave a bad taste in your mouth, nothing will.
Now something like this has been tried before. The Telegraph reports that, "Last year a lesser-known author, Bill FitzHugh, was paid in whisky to include references to Seagram products in his comic thriller Cross Dressing, but he says he did this as a way of generating publicity for his book," but that of course, was in alcohol. And only a few months ago, several prominent British authors were auctioning off names in their novels to the highest bidders, so your name could get into a distinguished work of fiction, but all the money raised there was to go to charity. This project's sole purpose, on the other hand, is to fatten Ms. Weldon's already large bank account.
Ms. Weldon was quoted in the New York Times as saying "I thought, 'Oh no, dear me, I am a literary author. You can't do this kind of thing; my name will be mud for ever'. But then after a while I thought, 'I don't care. Let it be mud. They never give me the Booker Prize anyway'." Perhaps it didn't occur to her that the real reason that she would never win the Booker Prize (she definitely won't win now), is that her books weren't that good. To deflect criticism of all this, Ms. Weldon called her fellow authors, "a terrible lot of hypocrites anyway - many of the literary writers made money writing terrible reviews about their competitors." Well, Ms. Weldon, us hypocrites are going to make sure your name is mud and stays that way. And terrible reviews of The Bulgari Connection are just the beginning.
Even Ms. Weldon's faux-frankness regarding this matter can be questioned. She said that the idea of writing a book about women's relationship with jewelry had been "slightly in my head" anyway and she found it easy to write. I like that slightly. And she said that originally she had not considered writing the book for general publication when she received a bottle of "beautiful green scent" through the post from Bulgari. Well, if the artistic integrity of writers and their books can be bought that easily, I'm mailing a bottle of Chanel No. 5 to Toni Morrison this instant and demanding that she name the hero of her next novel after myself and maybe get her to stop calling Bill Clinton, "black" as well.
Not that Ms. Weldon wasn't full of self-justifications, excuses, and evasions for her actions anyway. On the contrary, she was stuffed full of them. She said that she had started out as an advertising copywriter using 30-second ideas to sell products, moved to novels and now had "come full circle" to write novels about ideas and products, the premise being apparently, once in you're in marketing, you never actually leave. "I'm a jobbing writer like everyone else," she said, just like all those people starving in garrets. "I don't feel I have sold my soul at all - or those little bits that are left. I'm not sure quite what the debate about it could be. It's not going to open the floodgates, I don't think." [italics mine] Of course, if you're a well-established author on the scale of an Irving or a V.S. Naipaul, it wouldn't count. But if you're just starting out and desperate to score some quick cash, Weldon's example could be awful tempting. After all, if Ms. Fay Weldon, Commander of the British Empire, could bring herself to this point, why not you too?
Why did Bulgari choose Ms. Weldon? "She's such a good writer. She was the first author we approached," a spokeswoman said. "It's product placement, but a quirky, different idea that hasn't been done before," and with good reason. Under her contract, she had to mention Bulgari a dozen times, but she decided that that was "absurd and if I was going to do this, I might as well do it properly, without any pretence. The problem with product placement is when you try to do it without being noticed." So instead of having Bulgari jewelry mentioned in a few skippable references, Bulgari is now the actual subject of the entire novel.
Not that the novel isn't worth reading. Oh no, far from it. Her agent, Giles Gordon, said, "It is one of her best novels. I don't think it matters who pays a writer provided they are paid properly. It doesn't in any way compromise her novel...very funny and ironic." Ms. Weldon herself called it, "a good piece of advertising prose" and "the best thing I have ever written," which as I said above, calls into question the quality of her earlier novels.
So what does Ms. Weldon's "best thing" onsist of? To quote The Daily Telegraph, "The plot involves Grace McNab, who has just been released from prison after being jailed for trying to run over the new wife of her ex-husband. The heroine and her rival, Doris Dubois, clash at an auction of a painting showing a Bulgari necklace, a type of jewellery to which Dubois is apparently addicted." Grace McNab? Doris Dubois? Was Ms. Weldon channeling the spirit of Margaret Mitchell, when she wrote this? "Weldon writes admiringly of the beautiful 'peaches and cream décor' of the company's shop in Sloane Street, Chelsea, south-west London, where her characters are attended to by 'charming girls, and men too.' In a passage that reads rather like a catalogue showcasing the jeweler's products, one character pays £18,000 for 'a sleek modern piece, a necklace, stripes of white and yellow gold, but encasing three ancient coins, the mount following the irregular contours of the thin worn bronze.'" "One person who has read the book, which is set in London, said that it read as though the Italian company was the only jeweller in town." If I wanted to read something like this, I would have read the Saks catalogue and that catalogue you don't have to pay $16.10 at Amazon either, thank you very much.
This part I find the most astonishing of all. Now if an American author had done this, the bien-pesants on both sides of the Atlantic would have merely shrugged and thought it as another example of American vulgarity and commercialism, but now that a British author has done it (a British author with a title, no less), it appears to be alright. Jane Friedman, chief executive of HarperCollins, told the New York Times, "This is fantastic. It gives me a lot of ideas. What better way to spread the word than to have a commissioned book? And if you are going to talk about jewelry, you might as well talk about Bulgari."
Michael Nyman, of Bragman Nyman Cafarelli, said, "It is a more personal relationship with a book. You can curl up on a chair with it, you read it before you go to sleep. It is very near and dear." Gag me with a spoon, please!
Even real writers with real talent got in on this act. J.G. Ballard, said, "One wonders if Fay Weldon's readership is really Bulgari's target market, but my mind is already whirring away. From now on all my characters are going to drive Ferraris, wear Rolexes, have their own Learjets and they are going to drink Dom Perignon constantly on every page. It would be easy to be prudish, but I am inclined to say good luck to her." Edwina Currie, a former Conservative Minister turned novelist, said, "I think this is wonderful. Bully for her, or perhaps Bulgari for her would be more appropriate." Jeanette Winterson was even keener. "Fantastic," she said. "I am ringing up Veuve Clicquot now."
But I am glad to say that at least a couple of people in the publishing world had the balls to stand up for artistic integrity. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the president of the Authors' Guild of America, said, "It erodes reader confidence in the authenticity of the narrative. It adds to the cynicism. Does this character really drive a Ford or did Ford pay for this?" Ian McEwan was even more doubtful. "The last thing I would do is condemn anyone for the way they write their books, but to me a deal like this does seem to limit the hard-won and time-honoured freedom of the writer to do as he pleases." Nicholas Clee, the editor of The Bookseller, said, "I cannot remember anything like this, though there has been plenty of name-dropping by what one would call cheap authors," a group which Ms. Weldon I'm afraid has now fallen into.
Now I've got no problems with product placements. It's been happening for over twenty years now in movies or television shows and I see no reason why it should stop. As long as it's avoidable and not in-your-face and so long as Robert Patrick and Gillian Anderson aren't scarfing down Dr. Peppers every five minutes on The X-Files and saying, "Ahhh...such refreshing, thirst-quenching taste! Just what we need to continue our crusade against those otherworldly demonic forces." As long as that isn't happening, I'm cool with it. Call me a snob if you will, but when it comes to a "lower" art form, such as movies or television, that's what I've been made to expect, and my expectations are being lowered all the time. But when it comes to books, especially if they're not non-fiction, and especially if they're by one of our supposedly more "literary" writers, the corporations are going too far. As a rule, I like capitalism, free trade, and open markets, but when capitalism's vulgar by-product, consumerism, starts infecting even my favorite "high" art-form, they've got another thing coming to them. It's news items like these that want to make me sometimes go off into the backwoods, join a Michael Moore Fan Club, and/or vote for Ralph Nadar.
Now even Shakespeare's own theatre company had a sponsor which it was named after and thus advertised. But Shakespeare wasn't being forced to write plays in which the Earl of Southampton's name was mentioned favorably every four scenes, and Lord Southampton definitely didn't pay Shakespeare fifty pounds to write a Southampton History Tetralogy about the rise and rise of one great aristocratic family. Can you imagine what would have happened to Shakespeare and his plays if he had? Or for that matter, to all the great works of Western literature, if this boorish and philistine idea had been thought of earlier? Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecroft brought to you by Playboy Magazine? The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx brought to you by Microsoft? The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway sponsored by Greenpeace? The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck sponsored by the Wall Street Journal? The mind boggles at the vulgar possibilities.
Already, our shark-like venture capitalists are moving in for the kill. Note what Francesco Trapani, Bulgari's chief executive and the man who came up with the commissioning idea, equates books with. Mr. Trapani said in a magazine interview, "When you take out an ad in a magazine, you only have a certain amount of space in which to speak." "That is why product placement, whether you're talking about books, movies or Hollywood stars, is so important."
Like all "innovators" in her field, Ms. Weldon has absolutely no regrets. She would be happy to do the same again. "If Armani came to me and I thought there was a novel to be written about the relationship of a man to his suit, I would do it." One industry expert described the publication as "part of the next wave of product placement." God help us, if this is true. Spengler's Decline of the West continues apace. Nevertheless, I wish Ms. Weldon all the luck and the money in the world. Hopefully, those will make good substitutes for where her artistic integrity used to be.*
* This editorial opinion was brought to you by Enter Stage Right - A Journal of Modern Conservatism, whose editor did not pay the author any amount of money whatsoever to solicit it.
Barton Wong is a regular commentator at the Houston Review and studies Literary Studies and Philosophy at the University of Toronto.
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