This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

August 9, 2001 — Given the nature of the times, I suppose what Fay Weldon did was inevitable. Still, the identity of the Judas amongst the believers always turns out to be surprising. In this case, it was a 69–year–old upper–class British woman recently given a Citizen of the British Empire medal by the Queen.

Fay Weldon, you may already know, is the British novelist who struck a deal with the Bulgari jewelry company to mention its products in one of her novels in return for an undisclosed, although presumably considerable, sum: the book was "initially intended only for private distribution to [Bulgari's] favoured clients," the London Observer noted, meaning Weldon's sole income from it would be whatever Bulgari paid her. And writers of her status don't write novels for peanuts.

Bulgari's generosity, in fact, may explain why Weldon, who was supposed to mention the company's name 12 times, instead used "Bulgari" in the title of her book, set key scenes in Bulgari stores, used lavishly described Bulgari jewelry as key objects, and basically mentioned the company's name too many times to count.

But Weldon and her agent were so delighted with the outcome — "'This is like F Scott Fitzgerald', I said to her when I finished reading it," her agent told the Observer — they decided to show it to publishers. "The Bulgari Connection" will be out in November.

Thus, the first instance of "product placement" in a literary novel, although the practice has been going on for decades in the television and movie industries. That's what inspires the "this was inevitable" observation, which is made keener by the fact that most of the country's major publishers have been taken over by the conglomerates that own the television and movie companies.

Still, Weldon, author of several highly respected novels, including "The Lives and Loves of a She–Devil," said that initially, she balked at being first to extend the practice to literature.

"I thought, 'Oh no, dear me, I am a literary author. You can't do this kind of thing; my name will be mud forever,'" she told the New York Times. "But then after a while I thought, 'I don't care. Let it be mud. They never give me the Booker Prize anyway.'"

Weldon needn't have worried. While there were some quick and wicked parodies — the Observer ran a Jane Austen parody called "Pride and Prostitution" — few criticized her outright. The Times cited only Authors Guild president Letty Cottin Pogrebin saying "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?"

The Times did, however, find many enthusiasts. "I think this is fantastic," said Jane Friedman, CEO of Weldon's British publisher, HarperCollins. "It gives me a lot of ideas."

"The sky's the limit," Weldon's agent said, suggesting that "'chick lit' novels and memoirs about the lives of young women offers potential for touting vodka, cigarettes, clothing and other brands."

Thus, operating, apparently, out of some sense of revenge against a literary community that hadn't given her the awards she felt she deserved, Weldon launched what will now surely become standard practice: hidden advertisements in books.

You know the rest: Some will be outraged, but they'll be labeled old fogies or otherwise shouted down. In fact, the aforementioned inevitability of it all will be presented in Weldon's favor, as if being inevitable makes what she did any less venal, as if she were victim to some force of nature no human could withstand.

But people have been withstanding it for, well, centuries, which is how we've come to think of the interior of books as inviolable — a place where we're safe from anything interrupting an artistic interaction. We may not trust the trendy cover, nor the blurbs on the back, but we do trust that, like it or not, what goes on between those covers is between us and the author and nobody else. It's actually a sacred place.

Or it used to be. Now, readers, like people who don't go to the movies as often as they used to, or don't watch as much television, will be forgiven a shudder of despair.

But perhaps publishers should shudder, too. The Times noted Weldon's American publisher, Atlantic/Grove, stressed it "had no relationship with Bulgari." Well, they do now. Readers are particularly savvy consumers who note things like that and silently, begrudgingly, but nonetheless resolutely, move to other sources.

For Weldon herself, it's too late. "Have I betrayed the sacred name of literature? Well, what the heck!" she gracelessly told the London Independent. But she's written her most telling sentence of them all: the one that will begin her obituary, where she'll be remembered as an author motivated by commerce over art.

Last Week’s Column: FROM THE ARCHIVES: WRITERS AT WORK A survey of some of the most interesting writing going on in new fiction these days — the author bios that appear in the back of the book.


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.