Write Stuff – Pages and Patrons

Mention product placement and most book lovers start muttering like Shakespeare’s witches, mumbling ominously about the pricking of their thumbs. Rapid changes in technology have only heightened fears about those sly commercial cameos slipping into the plot. After all, how much simpler could it be than to tweak new versions of an e-book and put the latest smart phone or lipstick into a character’s hands?

The question of corporate influence and creative process is a good one. But is it new? Hardly. In fact, the battle between pages and patrons has been going on for centuries.

It started as long ago as ancient Greece (and probably even earlier), when those early poets and playwrights realized a hard truth of their art: you can’t eat words. At least, not literally. So what was a struggling Athenian artist to do? Rely on the patronage of his polis, of course. From the French writers obliged to praise Louis XIV in their work, to the Early Renaissance artists indebted to the Borgias, the dilemma was the same: ?the payment of large sums of money on one hand for the surrender of something extremely personal on the other,? as writer Donald Heiney put it.

When it comes to product placement (or even outright ads) in books, corporations play a role similar to those patrons. They provide the money that allows writers to keep writing and, in some cases, publishers to keep publishing. The cash that makes up the difference between rent and royalties. In exchange, these modern-day corporate Sun Kings exert a certain influence over the content of the writer’s work.

Clearly, the ?products? are different. Today’s readers find characters wearing Rolex watches and Cover Girl Lipslicks. And, as The New York Times reported in 2006, luxury-goods maker Bulgari even commissioned an entire novel by author Fay Weldon, paying ?an undisclosed amount? to highlight their brand in the book. The title? The Bulgari Connection.

Back when churches, kings, and nobility were the major patrons, nobody was putting Coke Classic in fictional characters? hands. What writers were doing, though, was upholding the political and religious agendas of their benefactors. That doesn’t mean poets and novelists had to include blatant plugs for, say, Queen Isabella’s naval ambitions. But you can bet that no writer enjoying Henry VIII’s favour was out there slagging the Tudor ?brand??or criticizing the English Reformation.

Ideally, the books, newspapers, and magazines that inform and entertain us would be free of any influence save that of the writer. They’d be subject only to the whims of the author’s imagination and personal beliefs, along with the editorial decisions of publishers. Sometimes, That’s the case. Writers win grants, get funding from universities, or have enough money and influence to back their own projects.

But It’s a fact of life that funding, from kings or corporations, has always bought a certain degree of influence over artists. An important fact to remember in this brave new literary world.