Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Was it just my imagination, or did the clerk at Barnes & Noble sneer when I brought my copy of The Bulgari Connection to the checkout counter?

Of course, that small gesture of contempt is nothing compared to the outrage that greeted British novelist Fay Weldon when it became known that her latest book from Grove/Atlantic was commissioned and paid for by the Italian jeweler Bulgari.

Until now, novels-particularly the “literary” kind by authors like Weldon-have generally been free of the product placements that long ago engulfed films and television. It’s unclear whether this is a reflection of the form’s relative marginality in today’s world or its inherent artistic integrity. But in an attempt to preserve one of our culture’s last ad-free spaces, a band of 20 authors (none of them novelists) sent a letter to 85 book-review editors, asking them to ban the work from their pages.

“The Bulgari Connection is like a Kodak Moment or a Budweiser Whassup! It is an advertisement,” the authors argued. “If a copy of Ms. Weldon’s work arrives on your desk, we urge you to send it to the business editor.”

To no avail. The Bulgari Connection made The New York Times Book Review (under the headline “Your Ad Here”), an honor vouchsafed to a tiny percentage of the books published each year. Still, the petitioners do have a point. So I’ll leave it to
others to decide whether Weldon’s latest is a genuine novel, work-for-hire hackery or the end of literature as we know it, and stick to the more relevant question: Is it a good ad?

Bulgari’s original intentions were fairly modest. All it required was 12 mentions of the brand in a book that was to be privately published for the delectation of 750 of its most valuable customers. But the stakes changed when the work was sold to conventional publishers here and in the U.K. Instead of just the 12 mentions, Weldon put Bulgari on the title page of what was now a “real” novel, and turned one of its necklaces into the moral touchstone of her satirical good-vs.-evil fairy tale.

Rather than pulling off an extravagant bit of relationship marketing, Bulgari found itself on the front page of the Times and the subject of dozens of alternately indignant and blas? editorials. If you’re talking ROI, it was a home run.

In the narrative, Bulgari’s wares are cast in a role as flattering as the lighting in the jeweler’s “peaches and cream” Sloane Street store. The object of desire, an Egyptian number from the early ’70s, first appears in a portrait around the “firm and flawless painted neck” of Lady Juliet Random, one of those stock aristocratic dowagers of slightly dotty innate goodness. It is immediately coveted by Doris Dubois, a rapacious television celebrity and the newly minted trophy wife of a social-climbing self-made millionaire. She badgers Lady Juliet (who dismisses her with good-natured hauteur), bullies the Bulgari staff and tries to upstage her betters with a necklace-bearing portrait of her own.

Dear reader, she doesn’t get it-and loses job, manor house, reputation and husband in the process. The message is oh so clear: Doris is just not good enough for a Bulgari necklace, not to mention undeserving of the cosseting service the jeweler apparently lavishes on even its most unpleasant customers.
In real life, I imagine, some Bulgari jewelry does end up around the necks of nasty, grasping women. But, hey, this is an ad.

With characteristic cheekiness, Weldon claims that putting her sponsor front and center was more honest than tucking in product references on the sly. But the result is that the book feels more like one of those old-fashioned commercials in which the talent hoists the product shoulder-high than a bona fide po-mo art-and-commerce-blurring gambit like BMW’s auteur-directed Web films. As ads go, it’s not very cool, even if it does get the message across.

An avid novel-reader myself, I tried hard to find some crucial distinction between Weldon’s opus and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the latter having been written in those bygone days when advertisers pretty much stayed within the confines of their 60-second spots. Both feature well-known jewelers in their titles, both trade on the cachet of a brand and use it to define their characters’ desires and horizons. Though Capote was not paid for such services, his book performs all the advertising functions that Weldon’s does.

If there is a difference, it is this: Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a much
better novel. Perhaps it should be left to the book reviewers to have the final word on The Bulgari Connection after all.