- Designing Fictions: Literature Confronts Advertising by Michael L. Ross
“Are we dealing here with apples and oranges, or rather with two variants of genetically the same fruit?”(p. 12)
Michael L. Ross’s Designing Fictions: Literature Confronts Advertising makes the compelling argument that, as the quote above suggests, literature and advertising are closer bedfellows than we have cared to admit. Ross continues the journey started by Jennifer Wicke in Advertising Fictions: Literature, Advertisement & Social Reading (1988): the discovery of the cross-pollination between these two bastions of cultural production. Importantly, what is obvious at first sight is that the distinction lies in the transparency of advertising’s goals of persuasion. This function has often served as a reason to demote the artistry involved in advertising, and the too-close relation to literature has been seen as a threat to the latter’s greatness. Is the unease or downright disdain displayed by some critics also present in the interaction between literature and advertising, or is it purely an artefact of (sometimes elitist) cultural meta-commentary?
From the onset, Ross takes care not to fall too much in any camp: advertising’s nefarious consequences are neither to be ignored nor overplayed. Conversely, the way in which literature necessarily relies on self-promotion is neither denied nor given ontological precedence. Instead, Ross keeps an open mind that is crucial to documenting the tense, diverse, and often contradictory ideological currents that energise classic stories. A close reading of 10 novels and one television show sketches the telling literary rendition of the advertising world. After a rather pleasurable prologue that ties together Philip Larkin’s poem, “Sunny Prestatyn,” a passage from George Eliot’s Silas Marner, and Jay and Daisy’s dance of conspicuous consumption in The Great Gastby, Ross begins his first chapter, “Baudrillard’s Dream,” with a truly lucid exposé of advertising’s cultural scholarship. The overview—organised in broad thematic musings on the cultural significance of advertising, positive and negative—gives voice to many great commenters that span across a range of creeds: Baudrillard himself, of course, but also Barthes, Bauman, Ewens, Lawrence, McLuhan, Meyers, Twitchell, Wicke, Williams, Williamson, and more come to bear on the general discussion. Summarising a plethora of viewpoints that foreshadows the literary analyses, Ross documents how some fully condemn or laud the advertising endeavour, whilst others express a more nuanced and uneasy tension between its economic necessity, and its shadow product, promotional culture.
Chapter 2 sets the tone for the rest of the book, in which the author delves into readings of literature intimately connected, in one way or another, with advertising. In “Henry James and H. G. Wells: Seductions of Advertising,” Ross contrasts The Ambassadors (1903-1909) and Tono-Bungay (1909) for their use of advertising as a way to comment on, in the former, a clash between old-world and new-world values, and in the latter, its seductive vacuousness compared to other, higher, pursuits, such as science. Wells even went as far as including sketches for fictional ads, displaying a cunning understanding of persuasive design that was in keeping with ads of the time. Weaving in historical insights on the rise of the advertising agency and contemporaneous practices, Ross makes the case that promotional culture was at the heart of these works, thought the two novelists did not quite foretell the full extent to which this culture would bloom in subsequent decades.
In “Battles of the Bookshops: Christopher Morley and George Orwell,” advertising gains an increasingly pivotal role in the cited authors’ lives and works. Although he might not sound familiar to many nowadays, Morley was an exceedingly well-known during his lifetime as “a man of belles letters” who contributed extensively to American literary society as a novelist, critic, journalist, and poet. Yet some of his success, argues Ross, might be attributable to his savvy self-promotion; not only was he heavily involved with the marketing of his own texts, he even occasionally lent his services to the industry as a copywriter. Morley’s divided attitude towards advertising shines through in...