The Bulgari disconnection

The British writer Fay Weldon's latest novel, "The Bulgari Connection," is supposedly a fast-paced story involving jewelry and crime. Nothing unusual there, until you hear that Bulgari, the Italian jewelry company, paid this serious and respected writer to engage in what is called "product placement."

For some chunk of money - we're never told how much - Ms. Weldon was required to mention Bulgari at least a dozen times in her novel.

How did she overcome her moral qualms?

She told a reporter for the International Herald Tribune that since she had never won the Booker Prize, Britain's big literary award, she might as well skip being high-minded. I have to admit that I admire Weldon's healthy British-style disregard for public opinion.

She must have known this would cause a bit of scandal in certain circles.

We've come to accept this kind of advertising in our movies. It's become a game for my kids and me to see whether we can spot the Dunkin' Donuts box or Coke can in the latest big-screen release.

"Aha! Product placement!" we stage whisper.

This is the tip of a giant double-standard iceberg. We have loftier standards for literature, and we expect our "real" writers to struggle along from book to book, filling in the income gaps with teaching, lectures, and appearances at those ubiquitous writers' conferences. It's probably not fair.

And when an author is both popular and wealthy, like Stephen King, we snobs assume he can't possibly be a good writer. So, yes, we set up an unrealistic standard in the creation of literary art.

But, unfortunately, I believe we must have some rather rigid standards if we are to respect what we read. The more I think about the implications of product placement in novels, the more I worry about censorship and creativity.

What if Weldon had suddenly decided to have a character strangled to death with a Bulgari necklace? She simply couldn't allow her mind to work in that direction. And so we have the stifling of creativity, that fragile creature.

When we start telling ourselves that certain subjects are off-limits, or that certain other things must be mentioned, we are putting our own kind of stranglehold on writing, Bulgari-related or not. Imagine if Hester Prynne wore a tiny Tommy Hilfiger logo next to her scarlet letter. If Ishmael sat down for a lunch of Starfish tuna. Or if "Leaves of Grass" had been sponsored by Lawn Doctor.

The Cambridge writer Anne Bernays once told her students in a writing course about the genesis of her novel "The Address Book."

A friend had mentioned the story of someone who had lost his address book. When he eventually recovered it, he found new, puzzling names, addresses, and phone numbers inscribed in it. Was it amnesia? A parallel universe?

"Stop right there," Bernays told the friend.

She knew that any more information about the true story would suffocate the elusive element of creation, and she wanted the story for herself.

Many writers deliberately hibernate when they write, keeping out intrusions that might taint the flow of their narrative, the themes and ideas they struggle to explore.

I can't imagine how they'd feel if they knew that a company hack would be checking their final draft, to make sure a product had been mentioned.

Weldon claims that Bulgari asked for no changes in her manuscript. But that's beside the point: They did sit down and examine what she wrote.

What about next time, when Bulgari decides that a writer's description of a pair of earrings isn't attractive enough? And what will happen to our literature if every time we read a reference to Dr Pepper or BMW, we wonder how it got there? Were these the free thoughts of a free mind, or just more advertising?

Debra Bruno is a writer living in Brussels.

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