The Readers Who Might Be Rethinking Advertisements in Books

Peta Jinnath Andersen’s excellent PopMatters piece on the utility of placing advertisements in books effectively challenged the notion that such a possibility is a recent marketing development. It also, for what it’s worth, forced me to rethink my own objections to in-text advertising — objections that were not much more sophisticated than something along the lines of “No way, man. I’ll never support writers who sell out, man.” Not very sophisticated, to say the least.

When I initially read Andersen’s article, I could not help but balk at, for instance, the references to Apple products that abound in Stieg Larsson’s The-Girl-Who-Does-Stuff series. My reservations about what I perceived to be really clunky writing — above and beyond the obvious product placement gestures — were steeped in classic academic condescension: “classic” works of literature stand The Test of TimeTM and do not require such obvious connections to the “real world” outside of them in order for them to be relevant. Larsson is pandering, I thought. However, as I stepped back from that decidedly uncritical point of view, I realized 1) that I was being a snob and 2) that product placement/advertising in literature, at least in the contemporary era, has a fairly extensive, if often unacknowledged, history.

Thomas J. Roberts, in many ways, wrote the book on this history in his work An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction (1990) — ironically a book that could probably benefit from some advertising money, because it is now out of print. Roberts not only provides an overview of the ways in which references to popular culture have abounded in literature but also interrogates the notion that books which contain those kinds of references are always “junk”. He also encourages his readers, many of whom are probably academics — because, he quips, who else would read a book about reading habits? — to revise their potentially snobbish impressions of bestsellers, romance novels, detective fiction, and any other work in which the world of popular culture is used to prop up the plot. After all, what really separates celebrated regional representations like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, both of which rely heavily on colloquial descriptions of the worlds surrounding their characters, from, say, James Patterson’s representations of Washington, DC in his popular Alex Cross novels or Lauren Weisberger’s send-up of New York City’s fashion elite in her bestseller The Devil Wears Prada? Impassioned claims about “good writing” always seem as flimsy as so many used, junky paper towels.

Another way to complicate the argument that in-text advertising would pollute otherwise pure paperback pages is simply to look at some of the contemporary marketing campaigns that have already commercialized so-called classic literature. For starters, there is HarperTeen’s run of Twlight-themed book covers, all three of which are young Bella’s favorite novels. Along similar lines is the hilarious Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s series of Shakespearean-styled perfumes and colognes. (Where’s Cleopatra, BTW?) Additionally, there’s Quirk Classic’s expanding selection of mashup novels that infuse the blood of older literary works with figures directly from 20th and 21st century gothic and horror films. Heck, the cover image on Hockensmith’s Dawn of the Dreadfuls even vaguely resembles Bella. Finally, of course, there are these two enormous marketing behemoths, both of which, in all of their assorted forms and ancillary products, made the fantasy worlds of wizards and Hobbits popular to a broader audience than ever before.

Henry Jenkins has termed this confluence of media and marketing forms convergence culture, arguing that the continual development and upgrading of all manner of technology progressively brings “old” and “new” media together, creating a culture in which the two merge but never wholly replace each other. Thus, he might caution, lacing books, be they paperback or digital, with advertisements is not entirely different than recent developments in television advertising, where any number of mainstream television shows encourage viewers mid-episode to visit the web, or even to send text messages to their cellular service providers, in order to see “exclusive outtakes” or “extended scenes”. Likewise, the inclusion of these advertisements could simply be amplifying the polyphonic content of contemporary media — media that contains an abundance of voices from an endless variety of genres (hello, blogging!). It is worth noting that this particular argument, coincidentally, highlights what critics like Mikhail Bakhtin have seen as one of the greatest achievements of one of the “greatest” works of “classic” American literature: Moby Dick.

Essentially, viewing any particular media form, fiction or otherwise, as sacrosanct is to misunderstand the fact that all media forms are always and forever intertwined — and are therefore never pure. If the collusion of the film and publishing industries has proven nothing else, it has at least proven that much. In fact, now that David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes closer and closer to being a reality, I’ll probably give Larsson a read myself. In paperback, though, just to be clear.