Will books become just another ad?

September 11, 2001|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Now from the land of Shakespeare, Milton and Bridget Jones comes a literary breakthrough that gives new meaning to the phrase "commercial fiction." The Brits have given us a work of fiction that is a commercial.

Not long ago, Bulgari, the maker of fine jewelry, went out in search of a novel (literally) way to place its products. Bulgari's idea was dropped, along with a trademark perfume, on Fay Weldon's London doorstep.

Ms. Weldon, a member of the brazen hussy school of feminist satirists, happily adopted the concept of "product placement." She liberally sprinkled the crown jewels of her patron into a thriller and named it The Bulgari Connection. This cross-fertilization of Ms. Weldon's pen and Bulgari's coin created an entirely new genre which I may dub "literatisement," or "litad" for short.

Now, as a fan of Ms. Weldon, I suspect her motives were more mischievous than mercenary. After all, this is the woman who once explained her best-known revenge fantasy with these cheeky words: "It seemed to me when I wrote Life and Loves of a She-Devil that women were so much in the habit of being good that it would do nobody any harm if they learned to be a little bad - that is to say, burn down their houses, give away their children, put their husband in prison, steal his money and turn themselves into their husband's mistress."

The bad girl lives on in this 69-year-old woman. After a British and an American publisher both decided to mainstream the fiction originally written for Bulgari customers, the more sober of her literary peers call the litad "tacky" and criticized her as the first brand-name author to cross - or erase - the line between literature and advertising. Ms. Weldon responded: "Have I betrayed the sacred name of literature? Well, what the heck."

This isn't the first such line to disappear. Remember the moment in Broadcast News when the anchor played by William Hurt was accused of crossing the line between news and entertainment? How would you know, he asked, they keep moving the little sucker. Now we have infotainment.

The line between editorials and advertising has also been dusted over with advertorials. Soon Exxon Mobil will be submitting its columns to the Pulitzer committee.

Infotainment. Advertorials. Literatisement may be as new as a Bulgari watch. But for a long time, they've been moving the little sucker between fiction and advertising as well. Storytelling and product placement are now joined at the hype.

We've had product placements in movies since James Bond's producers convinced the Aston Martin folks to let them use the car. E.T. sold more Reese's Pieces than phones. Castaway turned out to be a full-length feature for FedEx. Last spring's teen flick, Josie and the Pussycats, was a satire on subliminal advertising that had more products than plot line. At least Ms. Weldon's litad isn't subliminal; it isn't even subtle.

Meanwhile, on the small screen, television folks are so worried about fast-forwarding through commercials that they have placed Pepsi and Pepto-Bismol in the story line of Law and Order. They have Doritos and Bud Light on Survivor. And now products are being placed and replaced on virtual ads beamed on and off the live broadcast of sporting events.

I abide by the creed of another English author, Samuel Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." Writers get paid by publishers. None of the continually merging publishing houses yet sells jewelry, but editors talk about books as "merch" and novels as "the product."

Is it really hard to imagine a deal between Bridget and Jenny Jones? Or Philip Roth and Viagra? This summer a couple offered naming rights to their son to a corporate sponsor. He ended up Zane, not Bulgari, but from infotainment to advertorials to literatisement, we're turning out one giant commercial.

Ms. Weldon once wrote Letters to Alice, a defense of reading, to an imaginary 18-year-old niece. "You must read, Alice, before it's too late. You must fill your mind with the invented images of the past; the more the better. These images, apart from anything else, will let you put the two and twos of life together. ... "

What should she tell Alice about the litad?

Literatisement is not a crime. If I may risk sounding too stuffy for the bad girl, the best part of fiction is the author's imagination. A good novel asks us to suspend disbelief. An ad forces us to suspend belief.

And The Bulgari Connection is just another word from a sponsor.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.