Christmas and consumerism – the icing on the cake or taking the biscuit?

I am, and always have been, a book worm.  My mum bought me books, not sweets, as treats when I was little.  I read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings when I was in primary school.  I studied literature at university.  Good books are like friends.  Even the smell of books is something special, and I still can’t resist an instinctive deep inhalation when I walk into a proper book shop.

Now I’m a mum, finding time to pick up an actual book is proving to be a bit of a challenge. The Sunday mornings, sitting for hours at a stretch with a good read, are well and truly over.  But I have discovered that e-readers and breast-feeding make a perfect match. No page turning required, reading is a one-handed job that can be done whilst feeding. Hours and hours of feeding time tedium instantly improved.  Result!

I’ve been trawling my way through various mummy books on the e-reader….baby behaviour, sleeping, weaning, growth spurts etc etc. But quite honestly, as much as I love motherhood, reading about this stuff is not the most fascinating way to fill my reading hours.

Just before Christmas I was choosing reading material to upload, and I decided to take a break from the mummy books, get myself in the Christmas spirit, and buy some holiday reading. Lightweight, feel good, easy reading, festive fluff. Cue Jenny Oliver’s The Parisian Christmas Bake Off. I then promptly forgot all about it until the day after Boxing day. Very out of kilter reading of a seasonal book, but I figured it was worth a go.  At the very least it would still be more entertaining than reading about baby-led weaning.

Actually it was not bad.  As a low-priced novel, with a clearly seasonal market, and published by an online digital-media company I was not expecting it to be a literary great. And it wasn’t. But it was okay. A pleasant little plotline about a young woman who goes off to Paris to discover herself and her values, and predictably finds true love and friendship, all through the magic of baking. It was easy reading, heart-warming fare, with well written characters and a focus on cakes and baking that made my mouth water. Certainly the leftover mince pies in the house didn’t last long once I started this book.

What most drew my attention though was actually nothing to do with the plot. It was the smattering of rather heavy handed references to branded products. It got me wondering, is product placement part and parcel of publishing for authors these days?  With the growth in digital media and the knock down prices (I bought this particular novel for 99p), are writers driven to boosting their income through sponsored endorsements for coffee shop chains and delicatessens, designer clothing and leather goods brands?  Or is it simply that in our very consumerist world, the references are a necessary part of contextualisation and scene setting? It’s easily done.  I’ll be honest, I had to search the old memory banks for the term ‘e-reader’, as I usually refer to the branded name that has become almost synonymous with the product.

E-reader and tea. Heaven.

I’ve not spotted this brand name-dropping quite so obviously before in a novel.  Perhaps I’ve just not read enough of the same genre of books.  Or perhaps it just jarred so particularly because it was a Christmassy book.  Although I’m not religious, to me, Christmas is a special time for being with family, and being grateful for your lot. It should not be about who spent the most, received the best present, got the biggest turkey, threw the most extravagant Christmas party. But every year, retailers whip us in to a frenzy of buying, and the food and beverage industry work tirelessly to keep us in a spending whirlwind, whether at home or out on the town.

Everything has a price these days, and if fledgling writers have found a way to make a small amount of money off the back of the mega-brands in retail and leisure, then good for them.  But, the idea of product placement in literature just doesn’t sit very easily with me.  When she starts to have her own preferences for reading material, will my pre-teen daughter be reading books filled with references to big brand toys, clothes, sweets? I’m sure there are lots of children’s books out there that fit that bill. I’d like to think that my old favourites will remain children’s classics and she’ll be reading Blyton, Dahl and Nesbit.  But who knows, ten years is a long time.

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