When the Critique Becomes a Product

I think we’ll call this the fourth of five. I should probably use the final one to talk about the story itself. Here are parts one and two and three.

The protagonist in one of my novels, Katie, works in advertising in Chicago. Here, she explains why writing TV commercials is sort of fulfilling:

So you’ve got thirty or sixty seconds to tell a story. It’s all framed in present tense, there’s no backstory, but you can arrange two people on a couch and make it instantly obvious whether they like each other or they’re sick of each other or bored with each other. So you pack all of this prior relationship into the first few seconds, and then the product arrives and improves their relationship or solidifies their relationship or makes them more exciting people. Every commercial is a love story, in its own way. You buy some tacos or some dryer sheets or some ketchup and it’s happily ever after. It’s pretty sappy, kind of fun.

John Berger once wrote of advertising that its goal wasn’t to make you envious of the person who already owned the thing for sale. It was to make you envious of your own future self once you’d purchased it. I could be surrounded by girls if I have Bud Light. And I could, in fact, buy Bud Light. Therefore, I could be this better, more appealing self.

Ling Ma’s Severance is often spoken of as a critique of late capitalism, in which everything and everyone are perpetually for sale. The book “invites readers to recognize both the humor and the dangers of America’s decadent consumerism” (Madeline Day). It’s a “scathing portrait of a society collapsing under its own ungovernable appetites” (Claire Fallon). And indeed, the book is filled with brand names, the talismans and ritual goods of the presumed future self. The Clinique 3-Step skin care. The Noguchi coffee table. The Uniqlo scarves. The things we buy to become idealized versions of our own selves.

The irony of irony, though, is that it also encourages consumption. This book, this object, is as heavily covered with advertising as the concourse of a shopping mall. It carries more than twenty blurbs, three awards or award nominations, eighteen “best book of the year” citations. Buy this book, and you’ll be the kind of person who buys this kind of book, the cover tells us. Smart, sharp, young, hip. You’ll be seen on the bus with an award-winning new novel, one that knows you well enough to know that you don’t take anything too seriously, even as every word on the cover wants you to know how seriously you should take it.

As Jhumpa Lahiri would be the first to tell you, none of this is the author’s fault. Ling Ma didn’t design the cover, acquire the blurbs, choose the typefaces or the pull quotes. But the sales work of the cover, the momentary heat of the commodification of her work, wouldn’t surprise her; she predicted it in the book herself.

And after this, in another few years, the jobs will go elsewhere, to India or some other country willing to offer even cheaper rates, to produce iPods, Happy Meal toys, skateboards, American flags, sneakers, air conditioners. The American businessmen will come to visit those countries and tour their factories, inspect their manufacturing processes, sample their cuisines, while staying at their nicest hotels built to cater to them.

I was a part of this.

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