Life, Liberty and the Obligation to Defend Both

Lear:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never!

Pray you, undo this button: Bulgari-made,

Gorgeous, surprisingly affordable,

Thank you sir.

Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,

Look there, look there!

Dies


Lear, Act V, Scene 3, improved

The news that the new Fay Weldon novel has been sponsored by famed jeweler Bulgari, which offered Weldon a tidy sum for inserting 12 glowing references to its handiwork in her book, is the latest entry in the master narrative of our time: the commodification of goddam everything. (In the end, Weldon decided to set her entire novel around Bulgariana rather then merely insert the occasional breathless paean to the product.) But this isn't the first time in recent decades that the line between serious writing and commerce has been crossed.

Twenty-five years ago, Esquire and Xerox announced they were jointly sponsoring retired New York Times associate editor Harrison Salisbury to tour the country and publish his findings during the nation's bicentennial year, with Xerox paying Salisbury a cool 40 grand and gracefully framing his piece with a couple of tasteful ads. This hot idea crashed to earth when an indignant E.B. White wrote a letter to the editor of his local Maine newspaper, prophesying nothing good for the future of journalism if it went on the corporate dole. "If magazines decide to farm out their writers to advertisers and accept the advertiser's payment to the writer and to the magazine," White wrote, "then the periodicals of this country will be far down the drain and will become so fuzzy as to be indistinguishable from the controlled press in other parts of the world."

About 15 years later, the Whittle Corporation found corporate sponsors for a series of public policy books by highly reputable authors from across the political spectrum: Amid their musings, the reader would stumble on several pages of advertising from the same enlightened folks who bring us worthy PBS shows and WWF Smack-Downs. After a few years, however, the series ran out either of policy intellectuals willing to take mega-bucks from the sponsors (I doubt this) or companies willing to throw money at them (more likely).

Now, however, the ads have returned, this time not alongside the writing, but as an inextricable part of it. No reason, come to think of it, why such adverto-art should be confined to new works: A whole cottage industry could be created during the current downturn, employing artists and writers to insert Bulgari blurbs, and those of other purveyors of fine products, into established classics.

Lay, on Macduff! Fine anklets from Bulgari

Round my foot, and damned be he who first cries,

Hold, enough!

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