The Earthling


Illustration by Robert Neubecker

The novelist Fay Weldon, the New York Times reported this week, has sold out. In exchange for an undisclosed sum of money from Bulgari, the Italian jeweler, she mentions Bulgari at least 12 times in her new novel—which, as it happens, is titled The Bulgari Connection.

About this corruption of the artistic endeavor I have only one thing to say: Bulgari, Bulgari, Bulgari, Bulgari, Bulgari, Bulgari, Bulgari, Bulgari, Bulgari, Bulgari, Bulgari, Bulgari. To put a finer point on it: I’m available.

Weldon’s sellout comes at an interesting time. There is more and more serious talk about the death of intellectual property, as the digitization of all kinds of information permits their easy, unauthorized circulation. Various new forms of recompense for creativity are being suggested. One is the “tip jar” (employed by Slate’s own Mickey Kaus at Another is a return to Renaissance-era patronage. Michelangelo had Medici; Fay Weldon has Bulgari.

Naturally, Weldon’s deal is provoking outrage in literary circles. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, president of the Authors Guild, calls this the “billboarding of the novel” and warns that readers may start to wonder, “Does this character really drive a Ford or did Ford pay for this?” This nagging doubt, Pogrebin fears, “adds to cynicism.”

“Adds to” is indeed the right term. There is already plenty of cause for readers to suspect that the average novel is something other than untrammeled artistic expression. Every writer who lacks a trust fund has to make a living, and this usually involves compromise of one sort or another.

The most common form of compromise, of course, is pandering to the masses. Hence the ample supply in novels of sex, violence, and substance abuse. But even the more “literary” novelists sometimes pander—if not to the masses then to elites who decide which books get reviewed and which books get the big prizes. Hence political correctness and for that matter stylistic correctness.

It isn’t obvious to me which of these traditional forms of slavery—to mass or to elite opinion—has more pernicious effects. (Is a surfeit of sentimentality any worse than the unnatural aversion to it that is periodically favored in highbrow circles?) And, in any event, it isn’t obvious to me that either type of slavery is morally superior to the mandatory mention of Bulgari jewelry.

Is it too much to hope that Weldon’s form of slavery might weaken the traditional forms by offering an alternative means of sustenance? As a rule, probably so. In fact, the opposite will often be the case. After all, to maximize your value as a billboard, you should first maximize your appeal to the masses.

Still, in Weldon’s case, at least, billboardization may have weakened the tyranny of elite opinion. When Bulgari first approached her, she says, “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.’ ” But then she decided, “I don’t care. Let it be mud. They never give me the Booker Prize anyway.”

And what was the aesthetic result of this liberation? According to the Times, Weldon “customarily writes contemplative, literary novels about working women or intellectuals,” but her new novel “is faster paced, less descriptive and relies more heavily on plot. It is a dark social comedy about the foibles of the very rich. Its heroine, Grace McNab Salt, has recently emerged from a jail sentence for attempting to run over her ex-husband’s new wife, Doris Dubois, an avaricious television celebrity who favors Bulgari’s bulky jewelry.” Sounds like an improvement to me!

Some of the tsk-tsking Weldon will now face is, like much of literature itself, a product of status competition and envy. Imagine how upset Bobbie Ann Mason must be that she didn’t have the presence of mind to demand a dollar for every time she mentioned Kmart. But she shouldn’t give up. Books get reprinted every so often, and the author has a chance to change a word here and there. If Mason threatens to switch her entire oeuvre to Wal-Mart, she could find herself in a monster bidding war.

In my own case, product placement won’t be so easy, since I write nonfiction. Still, it is true that my most recent book, Nonzero, about the near-inevitability, ever since the Stone Age, of globalization and world governance, could just as easily be called Netzero, since affordable Internet access is part and parcel of globalization. Also my book The Moral Animal, in its several chapters about sex, mentions contraception occasionally, and in retrospect I probably should have included references to specific contraceptive technologies, such as Trojans, Trojans, or Trojans. Regrettably, my first book, Three Scientists and Their Gods, is out of print. But I’ve long wondered whether I could interest a publisher in reissuing it as Three Scientists and Their Goods.

Sometimes I worry that my favorite form of product placement—mentioning my books in my columns—will seem cheesy, lowering my stature in elite nonfiction circles. But then I figure: To hell with it—they never give me the Pulitzer Prize anyway.