Thomas Sutcliffe: Weldon's two-fingered salute to book world

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The Independent Culture

She began her career in advertising and, if the sniffier cultural critics are right, she's about to end it there too. Then again, Fay Weldon's decision to accept a product placement commission from the jewellers Bulgari has more than a little retaliatory mischief about it.

"I thought: 'Oh no, dear me, I am a literary author ... my name will be mud forever'," she said to The New York Times recently, describing her reaction to Bulgari's offer. "But then I thought 'I don't care. Let it be mud. They never give me the Booker Prize anyway'." By this account the publication of The Bulgari Connection is a two-fingered farewell to the British literary establishment, both fingers garlanded with those ostentatiously chunky rings.

She isn't the first artist to flirt with advertising in her work. However, she has broken out of the accepted categories of commercial creation.

Product placement in literature comes in two essential forms. Aspirational is common in popular fiction and shunned by anything hoping for literary status, while observational is increasingly common in literature and rare in potboilers.

Ian Fleming's James Bond novels offer a good example of the former – cheerfully handing over thousands of pounds worth of free endorsements for Walther, Aston Martin, Dunhill and Morlands, the Grosvenor Street tobacconists who hand-rolled 007's Balkan cigarettes.

According to Fleming, the inspiration here was simple gratitude. "When I make him smoke certain cigarettes, it's because I do so myself. I know what these things taste like, and I have no shame in giving them free advertising."

A similar motive inspired one of the few other examples of titular product placement in British letters – Anthony Burgess's Time for a Tiger. It was so called because the author hoped the producers of his favourite Malaysian beer might reward him with a case or two of the product. He was disappointed but one assumes that, if Ms Weldon was after some of Bulgari's knuckle furniture, her agent will have discussed the details first.

The second, and much safer, approach to commerce is the observational – an early example of which occurs in James Joyce's Ulysses, when Leopold Bloom notes the advertisement for Plumtree's Potted Meat: "What is a home without/Plumtree's Potted Meat?/Incomplete/With it an abode of bliss".

In a whole string of writers since then, including brand names has become a simple element of truthful depiction, and any increased sales merely an accidental side effect. It may be, for example, that John Updike's Rabbit is Rich increased sales of Toyotas (Rabbit ran a Toyota agency) and La-Z-Boy recliners, but they were in the book to reflect a consumerist America, not to bolster it.

Weldon once defended her vision thus: "My role is to look at the world, get a true, not an idealised version of it and hand it over to you in fictional form". The Bulgari Connection may prove quite undazzled by all that precious metal – no one has read it yet. But you can't help feeling that this time she may have settled for idealisation over truth.

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