Strange tale of the author, a jeweller and some novel product placement

David Usborne
Tuesday 04 September 2001 00:00

With 20 novels to her name, as well as short stories, screenplays and articles, Fay Weldon won herself a place in the pantheon of great British writers long ago. We have sad news, however. Ms Weldon has committed a sin so terrible, so crass, so commercial, that she may be remembered now for betraying her art and sullying the literary tradition for ever.

On the other hand, she may have done no such thing. It depends on your point of view. Be assured, however, that there are many in the publishing world this morning who are, at the very least, scratching their heads at what Ms Weldon has done with her latest book, due to come out in Britain next month and the US in November.

It is called The Bulgari Connection. And, already, you will have some notion of the problem. Bulgari – in real life, not fiction – is an Italian purveyor of very fine and very expensive jewellery. Like every luxury goods company, it is always looking for novel ways to promote its name and image. Novel, in this case, is definitely the operative word.

What we seem to have here is the first case ever of a so-called "product placement" deal between a fiction writer – or at least one of any serious repute – and a commercial partner. It happens in other forms of entertainment, of course, and has been particularly prevalent in films, but this is something entirely new.

It began, Ms Weldon explained in an interview yesterday, with a green bottle of Bulgari scent, left on her Hampstead doorstep one fine morning two years ago. It was the company's first pitch to her about writing a novel that would prominently feature its name. The perfume, apparently, was to her liking and she was soon writing.

The agreement was straightforward enough. For an undisclosed sum, Ms Weldon, who is perhaps best known for The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, would write a short work featuring at least a dozen favourable mentions of the company. In the end, Ms Weldon decided to make the involvement far more obvious, even including it in the title.

"I didn't want to do it in a hole-in-a-corner kind of a way," the author explained. "I could have sneaked in a mention here, a mention there, with the hope that it gets noticed, but I didn't want to do that."

Instead, Ms Weldon lavishes attention on her doubtlessly grateful sponsor. Thus, almost at the very start of the book, her roving protagonist, Barley Salt, a posh estate agent, is seen lingering amidst the "peaches and cream decor" of Bulgari's Sloane Street shop in London, preparing to spend £18,000 on a gift for his second wife, Doris.

Looked after by "charming men, and girls too," Mr Salt chooses a "sleek modern piece, a necklace, stripes of white and yellow gold, but encasing three ancient coins, the mount flowing the irregular contours of thin, worn bronze".

There was, at first, no thought of general publication. Bulgari wanted the book so it could give away copies at a party held at Claridge's hotel last September to celebrate the opening of their new shop on – you've guessed it – Sloane Street. And that is what happened. Just 750 copies were printed and placed on tables for guests. Ms Weldon was, of course, on hand, done up in a £1m Bulgari necklace.

It was only after the party that Ms Weldon and her agent, Giles Gordon, showed the book to her publishers, HarperCollins in London and Grove/Atlantic in the US. The author thought the book, which is more in the tradition of She-Devil than any of her more contemplative works, rather good and "terrific fun". "I think it worked because the pressure was off when I was writing it," she said.

Grove/Atlantic in New York did not like the idea at all at first and its editors refused to read it. But, with prodding from Mr Gordon especially, eventually they relented and read it. They considered changing the title, to try at least to avoid the impression that the book was one big advertisement, but finally agreed to keep that too.

It is precisely that – the sense of an advertisement masquerading as a book – that has many in the industry worried. "My first reaction is to roll my eyes and say, 'How tacky'," said Peter Osnos, the publisher of PublicAffairs books in the US and a former editor with Random House. "If this became routine, it would be something that anyone that cares about literature would have to be very worried about; it's not a healthy thing."

"It does effect the purity of things, and they are all so pure," Ms Weldon replied in ironic tones. "Writers just actually make a living, you know. I don't think it's any use being pure. You really can't be pure. It was sold to the publishers because it is a good novel. Have I betrayed the sacred name of literature? Well, what the heck!"

Indeed, the author seemed almost amused by the fuss she knows she has created. She started to speculate about a future in which sponsors would pay the authors directly and publishers, always complaining they are hard up, would not have to remunerate writers at all. But might it only work, she wondered, with high-end products? "You couldn't do it for Wrigley's chewing gum, could you? Well, I suppose you could."

The possibilities are endless. Imagine what Helen Fielding might have extracted from the booze and cigarette industries for some repeated product placements in Bridget Jones's Diary. If someone had thought of this before, we might have had "Lord of the Ratner Rings", for example. Or "Catcher in the Monsanto Rye".

You only need turn to the movie industry for a model of how to do it. The man who purportedly started the rot in Hollywood was Steven Spielberg who in 1982 had the smart of idea of seeking a confectionery company to shell out if he fed their brand of sweets to the little aliens in ET. He had M&Ms in mind, but it was the makers of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups that took him up. Sales of Reese's soared.

While her mood was undefensive, Ms Weldon did point out that there is a long tradition of artists seeking the patronage of rich sponsors. Beethoven, she said, wrote the Kreutzer Sonata for a certain Baron Kreutzer. Presumably, money changed hands there.

Also, she is not entirely the first writer to cross this line. Last year, an author less well known, named Bill Fitzhugh, did a deal with Seagram to mention its brands of whisky in a book entitled Cross Dressing. It was meant only as a stunt to gain publicity, however. Fitzhugh got bottles of booze from Seagram but no money. And, apparently, not much publicity.

Meanwhile, Mr Gordon said yesterday: "There seems to be this cynical suggestion going around that Fay has been compromised by this. She didn't write this book differently than she writes any of her novels. Maybe people are jealous, I don't know."

It is bizarre as well as unprecedented for a feminist writer who has chaired the Booker Prize panel and been Booker-nominated herself to be part of such a financial deal but Fay Weldon has always been a maverick, and not only in her feminism. She regularly offends the prevailing political correctness. She rampaged against Islamic fundamentalism in support of Salman Rushdie, saying: "Are you going to sit back and watch people get stoned to death and say that's all right, it's your culture?"

She has enraged fellow feminists, most notably when she suggested that rape "isn't the worst thing that can happen to a woman" (meaning that death is definitely more final), and recalled that she had been subjected to an attempted rape as a young woman. "It was nasty, but it didn't shatter my view of men," she said. "The man in the taxi simply wanted sex."

As a former advertising copywriter – who reputedly coined the phrase "Go to work on an egg" – perhaps Ms Weldon's latest headline-grabbing outing should just be seen as the ultimate advertisement – for her own books.

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