Perhaps Lexus Is Not A Corrupting Influence on Contemporary Literature

By Neal Comment

mark-haskell-smith.jpgAfter reading a recent GalleyCat post that described In the Belly of the Beast, this year’s Lexus Original Fiction Series project, as “a matter of branding gone wrong,” Mark Haskell Smith (left), who came up with the concept for the serial novel and recruited the nine authors who will be taking part, emailed me suggesting that evaluation was unfair. “Is it more or less wrong than Spike Lee directing a film for Nokia?” Smith asked rhetorically. “Is it more or less wrong than Oprah Winfrey choosing a novel for her show… or Starbucks picking a book to sell in their stores?”

(Full disclosure: Not only am I friendly with Smith, but Channel V Media, which represents Story Worldwide, the “brand storytelling” firm behind Lexus’s print and online magazines, is also my PR firm.)

“Lexus did a focus group,” Smith says of the serial’s origins. “Lexus owners listed travel, food, and reading as their top three leisure activities. So Lexus decided to add some fiction to their magazine… The project was undertaken in the spirit of fun. The writers got to do, basically, whatever they wanted, within minimal guidelines. The guidelines were more about sex, drugs, and drunk driving than selling the vehicle. So here’s an opportunity for nine writers to get their writing, bios, and info about their novels out to a million readers. Is that a sellout or a clever use of new media—specialty publishing—to reach readers and maybe sell some books?”

In a subsequent email, Smith underscored what he considers the power of the specialty market: “How else could a talented up-and-comer like Mary Otis reach one million households with her fiction? In what other venue?” (And one has to admit: A collection of short stories from Tin House Books, no matter how awesome it might be, is probably flying well beneath Oprah’s radar.)

For the last few years, authors have been told that they need to get online because “that’s where the readers are,” but it’s not as if anybody’s paying them to spend all that time on their blogs; all they have to go on, in strictly financial terms, is the hope that their online presence will eventually lead to the emergence of a regular book-buying audience. Smith’s argument reminds us that there isn’t just one place “where the readers are,” and if somebody’s willing to pay to bring writers to that place and do what they do best—telling stories—maybe that’s not so different than paying nonfiction writers to stand up in front of an audience and dispense whatever wisdom it is they’ve acquired.