restricted access Advertising Fictions: Literature, Advertisement, and Social Reading (review)
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Reviewed by
Jennifer A. Wicke. Advertising Fictions: Literature, Advertisement, and Social Reading. New York: Columbia UP, 1988. 224 pp. $27.50.

Wicke's critique complements the already formidable scholarly bibliography on advertising. It provides a field long dominated by social science types with a valid literary analysis of advertising's decussation with "high culture." Using Charles Dickens, Henry James, and James Joyce, she traces the symbiotic, diachronic unfolding of advertising and literature as mutually interacting discourses. Proposing to demystify the practice, she foregrounds advertising as "a language in its own right" not "divorced from other cultural productions."

Methodologically, Wicke's analytical device is a high art/low art matrix across which she meshes literature and advertisement, asserting in effect that neither can be fully read without reference to the other. Her hypothesis is broached through a very specific passage, "the great novelistic tradition," but claims a much broader [End Page 315] theoretical plane, that is, "the changing place of literature per se in contemporary culture."

The relationship between literature and advertising so regarded, Dickens is relatively easy pickings for proof. As the "first capitalist of literature," he matures synchronously with the "aestheticizing of capitalism," a fact which allows Wicke to demonstrate the centrality of advertisement to Dickens novels and to show that Dickens' novels were directly related, as products, to advertising. She argues that advertising "emerges as a subtext or organizational principle" of Dickens' works, including Sketches by Boz, Pickwick, The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend. There is an interlocutionary shift of purpose with James. The Bostonians deploys advertising metaphors, and its world is already beginning to be the world laid out by advertisers. The Ambassadors addresses the problematic of the "assault on the eye" and "battles" with advertising instead of parodically absorbing it. The American Scene is a "structural analysis" of the social conditions that fluctuated American advertising. Joyces Ulysses expresses yet another turn. In text, tone, and philosophy it represents a "new literature with no discernable author and no particular reader—advertising." For Joyce, advertising and "mass cultural forms become a matrix of textual practices, set within a parody frame of scholastic and classical reference."

Ulysses marks the third phase of Wicke's dialectic of advertising and literature. In the first stage, which ends with Dickens, advertisement shares in the parturition of the realist novel and subsequently is imprinted by the literature it helped create. In the second stage, James "brings literature and advertisement into open rivalry, with literature on the defensive." In the final development, marked by Ulysses, advertising is "firmly esconced" as concomitant to any act of production, and "literature begins to be colonized by advertising. . . . Ulysses records but does not succumb passively to this takeover."

All through Wicke's text, advertising is set up as a "powerful mode of social reading," crucial to the novel's emergence as a powerful social institution. Whether or not one would wish to extend Wicke's hypothesis to "Balzac, Hardy, Baudelaire, Gissing, T. S. Eliot, Twain, Melville, Valery, the Futurists, Flaubert, Pynchon, etc.," as Wicke suggests, one cannot deny that the author has brought a freshness of approach, a new perspective for understanding contemporary literature—and for that matter, social science critiques of advertising. [End Page 316]

Ewart Skinner
Purdue University
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