pdf Download PDF

Reviewed by
Michael L. Ross. Designing Fictions: Literature Confronts Advertising. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2015. xxi + 204 pp.

Jean Baudrillard is the resounding influence in Michael L. Ross’s recent, concise analysis of transatlantic novels variously engaged with the advertising business. Though his work is never confronted directly, tidbits from The Consumer Society are sprinkled throughout to texture and drive Ross’s interpretive engine. This generally represents the relationship to cultural theory throughout the book: Ross is shooting toward a more general, interdisciplinary audience through detailed and compelling readings of fiction rather than their theoretical containers. Thus H. G. Wells “prefigures” Baudrillard by representing the wastefulness of promotion and consumption in Tono-Bungay (55) or Philip Larkin “anticipates” Guy Debord through his display of “socially produced unrealism” (xiv). The general trend suggested by the methodology, here, is reflected in the central battleground of Ross’s argument, “the clash between advertising and ‘the real issues of society’” (19). [End Page 192]

In a sense, each chapter takes on a distinct mode of advertising, and the resultant structure culminates in a surprisingly relevant turn to the AMC television series Mad Men. The first half of the book is populated by a self-confessed “oddly assorted men’s club” (105) of Henry James and Wells, Christopher Morley and George Orwell, and Frederick Wakeman and Herman Wouk. They represent the main forms of advertising as it unfolded in the first half of the twentieth century: promotion as misrepresentation, propaganda as “advertising run amok” (77), and the production of mass culture through radio advertising. Ross then turns, in the second half, to the response generated by these forms. Margaret Atwood and her novel The Edible Woman present an interesting shift away from both the male-dominant production in the advertising industry as well as from the focus on overdriven masculinity projected into the environment. This is Ross’s densest chapter, turning somewhat cold description of forms of advertising—that is, misrepresentation—back to its effects on subjectivity: “self-misrepresentation” (104).

Here literature and advertising confront directly in The Edible Woman, as the incoming reality of “promotional discourse as an enveloping medium” (110) in the late 1960s can no longer be understood through a modernist paradigm of representation versus misrepresentation. Instead, Atwood uses her protagonist, Marian, who works for an advertising firm, as an embodiment of the negative cultural space that both literature and advertising as institutions fight over. The result is to convert advertising into “a metaphor, a convenient means of refracting the pressures promotional culture exerts on a vulnerable female subject” (104). This may seem similar to Orwell’s use of advertising or propaganda as a symbolic enemy for his poet-protagonist in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but Atwood’s distinct satire does not let (particularly male-driven) literary greatness transcend the warping effects of advertising on perception. Ross points out that Marian’s lover and garish English graduate student, Duncan, cannot play the decisive role of reorienting the self-misrepresented perceptions her career in advertising has thrust on her because, for Duncan, “the study of literature has become as venal as the flogging of material commodities” (121). This neutralization of traditional male agency through advertising is compelling, so much so that Ross claims that in The Edible Woman, “wariness vis-à-vis advertising and its correlative values has a more credible basis than the tergiversations of the leading men” of novels previously discussed (127–28).

A similar argument is continued in the epilogue, where Ross surprises with a bonus analysis of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a line that perhaps would have been better expanded and drawn into the body of the book as its own chapter. Here, Ross identifies another fledgling academic, Chip, who, appropriately, loves Baudrillard and [End Page 193] becomes yet another ironically heroic figure who cannot stand above the power of advertising’s influence and “the chronic difficulty in finding a genuinely impartial standpoint from which to critique trendy promotional stratagems” (179). And here lies the genuine force of Ross’s detailed history of advertising in literature: the totally ambiguous position of literature in opposition to advertising. Ross titles his study Designing Fictions to play off of Jennifer Wicke’s 1988 study Advertising Fictions; the implication of this is to texture fiction as decidedly processual rather than promotional. Ross finds fault with Wicke’s study for ultimately emphasizing the ways advertising was formally integrated and ultimately appropriated through works such as Ulysses, while he finds that the most important result from the clash between literature and advertising is the notable tension between experience and expectation (15). While an advertisement can take the same superficial design of a narrative to glean its effects, the receiver never comes away from the text of an advertisement with more than the single interpretation that the product should be bought.

Thus Ross maintains the potential of literature as the “special province” of “many-sided apprehension” (181) over the “tidal wave” of advertising (182), but only to a point. While the material form of the novel as fiction has difficulty standing up against the immediacy of a provocative propagandist image, Ross finds that fictions designed for another medium, television, reveal even more of fiction’s potential to push against advertising. Mad Men has already received a wealth of critical attention from media scholars, but Ross points out that, paradoxically, its critics often minimize its engagement with advertising culture because of its seemingly hypocritical values. Indeed, the show involves tie-ins from a variety of brands that have created lines of clothing or liquor and other hooks for the viewer to keep the experience going into daily life. But Ross finds this “schizoid split” (172) between the show’s critique of advertising and its function as a vehicle for advertisers to be an invigorating example of the inevitable clash generated by fictionality as common design for both artists and promoters.

The relevance of 1960s advertising culture in contemporary society becomes a major question posed by both Mad Men and Ross’s overarching argument. Hasn’t advertising changed so much in the intervening half century? Hasn’t fiction? Ross contends that the through-line from Henry James to Mad Men and the advertising businesses they are embedded within should be drawn to point to the elemental forces of production in capitalism. After all, the intended effects of advertising can only be measured by the economy, but its impact on daily life reaches into our perception and imagination, domains best measured by fiction. [End Page 194]

David Rodriguez
Stony Brook University