Review of L’Ėcrivain et la publicité: Histoire d’une tentation
Éditions Champ Vallon, Ceyzérieu, France, 2022
342 pp., illus. b/w and colour. Paper, 29 €
Literary history is becoming more and more inclusive, as is cultural history and historical thinking in general. Other voices are now being heard, and the symphony of these old and new expressions is increasingly following a path of democratic nonhierarchy. The combination of the heritage turn in culture and the supporting process of “artification” of previously nonartistic forms or practices, to use the term coined by French sociologist Nathalie Heinich, explains why virtually anything has now become a candidate for cultural legitimacy, social prestige, and scholarly analysis. Yet in spite of this massive change, certain cultural forms continue to remain almost completely under the radar. One of them is literary advertising, that is not the use of advertisements in order to praise literary objects (books, journals, authors, publishers, writing programs, etc.) as a merchandise to value and purchase, but the use of literary texts to promote nonliterary items or services, from cars to soap, from tourist resorts to drugs, from fashion to furniture, etc. The reasons of this omission are easy to grasp. Literary authors are not always keen to acknowledge their contribution to the advertisement business and even if they accept to sign these contributions with their own names (for their name is as bankable as what they write). They are generally reluctant to let these texts enter the properly literary circuit, hence the nearly complete absence of their advertisement work in the allegedly comprehensive but always highly selective version of their “complete works”. Literary advertisement is suffering from a social stigma: It suffices to compare with for instance fashion photography, which is not incompatible with running a truly artistic career, to see how problematic the status of this genre still is. The silence is as great on the side of the advertisers. After the golden age of literary advertisement (before, during and after the interwar period) advertising companies have moved to other techniques of marketing and communication and archiving and curating, no longer used materials and policies, are obviously not on top of their agenda although literature is far from absent from some of their new strategies–but this is not the topic of L’Ėcrivain et la publicité. Myriam Boucharenc’s excellent book, L’Ėcrivain et la publicité: Histoire d’une tentation (Writers and Advertising: The History of a Temptation could be a tentative translation of its title) not only aims at filling an important gap in literary and cultural history, it also uses its archival research to raise more general questions on the relationships between writing and society. Boucharenc’s study is at the same time sharply focused and very broad. On the one hand, it exclusively scrutinizes the French production in a very specific time span. Its historical range goes from the pre-WW1 years till the end of the post-WW2 modernization (the three decades of unprecedented economic growth the French call the “Trente glorieuses” or thirty glorious years, 1947-1968). In other words, the book covers more a less half a century, from the beginning of modern advertisement techniques till the emergence of mass consumption and advertisement society, when the image will progressively reduce the text to a secondary role. Boucharenc’s book addresses three major topics: First, the very history of the phenomenon of literary advertisement; second, the profile of the authors who were involved in this kind of business; third, the type of items and host media that were used by the advertisers to circulate the often very lavishly illustrated texts that had been commissioned (calendars, postcards, articles, books, gadgets and other ephemera, that is everything that could be printed). While all of us know examples of each of these topics, for who hasn’t read for instance a text by author X on restaurant Y in inflight magazine Z, the harvest of Boucharenc’s research, not only in libraries but also in antiquarian bookshops and flee markets, is breathtaking. The excellently made double index of the work (authors’ index and companies’ index) demonstrates that nearly all authors of that period, whatever their rank and status, have been active in the field of literary advertisement. Granted, some more than others, and Boucharenc smartly highlights those whose role has been paramount (mainly the three C’s: Blaise Cendrars, the inventor of the slogan “Publicity = Poetry”, Jean Cocteau and Colette). The book also showcases the wide range of products and services chosen for this type of advertisements, from luxury goods to very simple consumables. What makes Boucharenc’s survey so fascinating, next to the much-needed encyclopedic dimension of this research, is the careful contextualization of all the works and projects under scrutiny. Boucharenc elegantly describes a large number of texts and creations, but she also reconstructs the sometimes difficult balance between art and commerce, which in the end become indistinguishable (by the way, all financial details of contracts and sales prizes are methodically converted in today’s currency, which helps get a precise idea of what it actually all came down to). Moreover, the wealth of individual case studies is judiciously framed in order to make room for broader questions on writing as a career (or combining writing with another job). In all this, Boucharenc’s approach is exemplarily unbiased. The author refrains from accusing authors to sell out, while always taking the liberty to judge from a literary as well as commercial point of view the merits and defaults of the texts (the book is full of humor, but always a very mild one). She does not take an a priori stance against or in favor of literary advertisement. The broad historical perspective as well as the extreme diversity of authors, texts, products, and practices keep the book light years away from any form of ivory tower thinking. Literary advertisements appear as a crucial part of the literary business. They is an institution in itself, which it is now no longer possible to ignore or to condemn to a faraway margin of the system.