Fay Weldon's writing glitters, like a necklace. Like a Bulgari necklace, in fact. And no wonder.
The leaky boat of international publishing was rocked slightly when word got out that Fay Weldon had agreed, for an undisclosed sum offered her by Bulgari, the jewelers, to write a novel in which the firm's name would be mentioned at least 12 times. Originally, the jewelers and the author intended it to be a gift: a special edition of 750 copies only, to be distributed to selected guests at the company's annual bash. But once the novel was written, Weldon and her publishers in England and the U.S. decided to let ordinary mortals have a share in the fun of reading. Truman Capote, of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" fame, is probably kicking himself in the shins in his grave, for an opportunity missed.
Weldon's acceptance of the literary commission raised some eyebrows. Some authors - those who probably did not receive such pecuniary offers - claimed that it compromises the author's integrity and raises doubt among readers as to the author's honorable and artistic intentions.
Those dissenting voices conveniently forgot that Mozart wrote almost all his pieces on commission. And if they were opposing the demand of the firm to be mentioned a dozen times in the novel, they should have remembered that Rembrandt incorporated the faces of the merchants who commissioned his "Night Watch" in the famous painting. These gestures did not compromise in the least the authenticity and integrity of those works of art.
The film and TV industries have refined this form of "product placement" to the level of art. Usually, it is based on a barter arrangement: The product becomes part of the decor, and is supplied for free by the manufacturer. In the literary world, the phenomenon is rather rare, but by no means nonexistent.
Bill Fitzhugh has a character in his novel "Cross Dressing" who drinks a lot of Scotch. He approached Seagram and got an undisclosed sum of Scotch for literary services rendered.
Anyway, Weldon's book was paid for, written, published and delivered to bookshops. And here is what it is all about (from the book's cover): "Take one wealthy businessman on to his second marriage to an avid, successful young woman; one ex-wife who happens to be a saint; one artist, and a portrait for sale; two women wearing Bulgari necklaces. Add a touch of the supernatural, a big dose of envy, stir, and see what happens."
What happens is that Weldon kept her part of the deal more than scrupulously: Bulgari is mentioned much more than a dozen times; one scene (or is it two) takes place in the jeweler's shop. A Bulgari necklace plays a vital part in the plot. Oh, and the book itself is entitled "The Bulgari Connection." The lady doth protest too much. The reader stops noticing that he should have noticed such blatant product placement.
The final scene of the plot involves the unveiling of a portrait of a woman (the young, avid and successful one) wearing a Bulgari necklace (which is not hers, but she wants it so much that she commissions her own portrait wearing it). But neither is the portrait real: The artist was paid (much less than his asking price) to paint over an existing portrait, changing heads, as it were. Only the necklace is real (i.e., painted). But when the fake portrait is being unveiled, the glaring TV spotlights cause the paint to dissolve. The trick is exposed to all.
Goya she ain't
This "painting over" technique, adding a different head to an existing portrait, also has a historical precedent. Goya painted an equestrian portrait of King Joseph, Napoleon's brother. But when the Duke of Wellington won the battle of Salamanca in 1812 and was about to enter Madrid, Goya changed the head on the portrait. It now hangs in Apsley House, which belonged once to the Duke, in London. Our businessman and his young wife consider going there after visiting Bulgari's, and Weldon's narrator, who supplies the story, adds the following explanation: "An artist has to live." Nobody questions the artistic integrity of Goya's painting, thinks the reader.
Weldon would have preferred getting the money from some foundation, but she does not feel she has any explaining or apologizing to do: "I blame the readers, not the writers. They are an idle lot, they don't read nearly enough. If they did, none of this would be necessary." And the readers are left thinking that books and literature still hold some clout if a company pays a lot of money to be mentioned in a novel. But even then, they have to ask themselves, at the end of the book, the unavoidable question, "And how was it for you?"
Well. Weldon ain't no Mozart, Rembrandt or Goya. But she is a consummate craftswoman, and she can tell a funny story which leaves you thinking. Not much, but a bit. Her writing glitters, like a necklace. Jewelry is sometimes a work of art. More often it is only a trinket, which adorns people and life. What is wrong with that?
At the end of the day, and of the book, it is a matter of taste and the right proportions. Before writers start putting an ad in at the end of their books saying, "Will consider product placement in my next book, subject to suitable offer; please call ..." they should consider the story of a dance critic who was invited to lunch by a director of a dance company. "I, of course, do not expect you to mellow down your reviews after the meal," half-joked the director; to which the critic answered: "We are all for sale, you know, but not that cheap."