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Selling between the lines

Jane Smiley is the author of many novels, including "A Thousand Acres" and "Horse Heaven." Her most recent book is "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel."

WHEN YOU FINISHED ALL seven volumes of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” surely you noticed the convenient guide at the back provided by the editors of the Modern Library edition.

If you then turned to the entry for “Vichy,” you would be directed to Volume 5, Page 166, where Albertine says of Vichy water, “As soon as you pour it out, [it] sends up from the bottom of the glass a white cloud which fades and dissolves if you don’t drink it at once.” This is a straightforward allusion to a specific product for sale -- one of dozens or maybe hundreds of such allusions by Proust designed to give his novel the texture of reality.

So what’s the big deal if some guys in New York (writer Sean Stewart and his book packager, Jordan Weisman) have added a little product placement in the novel for adolescents they are soon to publish? As a result of their willingness to alter a few details for Cover Girl cosmetics, they’re getting advertising and promotion space on a website directed at adolescent girls, and the initial print run of their book has burgeoned from 30,000 to 100,000. The authors, pictured in a New York Times article about them, are grinning. And why not? My first response is, “Sign me up!”

A confession: In the summer of 2000, I sold the right to be a name in my next novel for $10,000 at a charity auction benefiting retired racehorses. After the auction, I went up to the purchaser and asked her what sort of character she wanted to be. “High-spirited and ready for anything” was the prescription, and I thought I could surely fit someone like that into a book about real estate speculation.

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What was more interesting was the name -- Betty Baldwin (thanks again, Betty!). For one thing, all the movie star Bettys of the 1930s and ‘40s have given the name Betty a certain insouciance, and for another, Baldwin is one of those names bland enough to be suspect. As I thought about Betty Baldwin, I conjured up a whole family background for my character that might not have been the same if I had sold the right to, let’s say, D. Wayne Lukas.

The exercise was fun and enlightening, and it showed me something about the contingencies of novel writing -- you never know where your inspiration is going to come from, and you never know where any particular detail is going to lead.

But would I have gone out and shopped around the right to be a name in my novel in return for a payment that would go not to retired racehorses, but to me? Let’s say there were four main characters to be sold at $10,000 apiece, and five secondary characters at $5,000 apiece. Hmm. I never thought of that! Is there a market?

But let’s look at the text of “Cathy’s Book,” which is coming out in September. In the original manuscript, according to the Times’ article, someone (no doubt Cathy) applies a “killer coat of Clinique #11 ‘Black Violet’ lipstick.” Now that the deal has been cut, Cathy prefers “a killer coat of Lipslicks in ‘Daring.’ ” Of course, this is only my opinion, but I don’t know what “Lipslicks in ‘Daring’ ” is. “Lipslicks in ‘Daring’ ” makes no sense as English prose. Score one for authorial integrity.

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Cathy also switches from “gunmetal grey eyeliner” to “eyecolor in ‘Midnight Metal.’ ” I admit that none of these phrases is immortal, but the new, Cover Girl-approved version smacks of ad-speak. Eyecolor? I thought eyes came in blue, green, hazel, brown. Now I find out they come in Midnight Metal. That’s scary. Score another one for author integrity.

Some years ago, Fay Weldon wrote a novel at the behest of Bulgari, the Italian jewelry company. It was the first product placement novel, to my knowledge. Fay got pummeled in the media for selling out her inspiration, but I was on Fay’s side at the time because she has always been tricky and subversive, and I knew even without reading the novel that she would certainly not suspend her tricky and subversive side just to cozy up to Bulgari. But then again, I never did get around to reading the novel, though I have read most of her others. Somehow, it just seemed to me that a novel sponsored by Bulgari didn’t need readers.

Maybe that’s the key here. The great appeal of novels, to those who love them, is that they are not generally about insiders but about, and by, outsiders -- Dorothea Brooke, Captain Ahab, Harry Potter.

And here’s another thing: Albertine’s comment about Vichy water is a little ambiguous. She doesn’t say she likes that cloud. Novelists who sell their characters to financial sponsors are like teacher’s pets. Instinctively we know that their allegiance is divided. They say they want only to please us, the readers, but really, what with “eyecolor” and “Lipslicks,” it’s pretty clear that we aren’t first on the list at all.

Will Weisman’s and Stewart’s adolescent readers care? I have no idea. But I have reconsidered my plan to auction off the parts of my next novel to the highest bidders. I’m not sure my style can take it.


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